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Archive for the ‘Witness Preparation’ Category

We’ve written about eyewitnesses and problems with accuracy here often. Today we have an article that tells us 242 people were wrongly identified by eyewitness testimony and served years in prison prior to being exonerated by DNA testing. Researchers at Florida Atlantic University wondered how memory in people might be altered by police use of “individual mugshots, an array of mugshots, composite sketches, and lineups” as well as subtle innuendos. Specifically, they wanted to answer this question:

Does presenting a picture along with a question like ‘is this the person who did it?’ create an association between those two things that could then cause an eyewitness to later falsely remember seeing that person doing that action?”

The researchers used 80 undergraduates (median age 19 years) and 40 “older adults” (median age 71 years) to test their question. Each participant was shown a series of videos snippets of actors doing simple actions and were then instructed to remember which actor did which task. The researchers created 84 mugshots from these video snippets and also created a series of various scenarios of the events depicted in the video snippets. Each participant was shown two mugshots: one was an actor who’d appeared in the video snippets and the other was a new, random actor (who had not been in the video snippets). They completed this task 36 times (each time choosing either one of the mugshots or neither of the mugshots as the person who had completed each task). They were also asked how confident they were in their identification on each of the 36 individual trials.

As participants looked at the mugshots, they were asked a question like “which of these people did you see watering a plant?”. After the mugshot presentations, the 40 older adults and half of the younger adults (another 40) were tested immediately to see how much they are able to recognize correctly. The remaining (40) younger adult were brought back three weeks later to be tested again. And what did the researchers find? It varied by age.

Both younger and older participants were more likely to falsely recognize events if the actors appearing in those events had also appeared in the mugshots.

For older adults, mugshot viewing meant they experienced a sense of familiarity when they saw the actor performing in the video snippets even if a different action had been asked about when they viewed the mugshots. (The researchers say this likely meant the older adults recognized the familiar face, but were unable to call up the source or reason for their familiarity.)

This finding leads the researchers to hypothesize that the viewing of mugshots itself may make a face seem familiar to the older adult.

Younger adults were more likely to falsely recognize a suspect if the mugshot of the actor was accompanied by a question about the action the actor was now seen performing in the video snippets. (The researchers think this indicates the young adults formed a specific association between the pictured actor and the queried action which caused them to falsely recall the actor performing the queried action.)

This finding leads the researchers to hypothesize that the viewing of the mugshot, when coupled with the question of whether this person committed a certain act, may leave the younger witness overly confident that they saw something they did not actually see.

The researchers indicate this is (yet another) concerning finding for eyewitness testimony. They express concern that this type of false memory can lead to a “high level of confidence, especially in younger eyewitnesses” since they firmly believe they “saw” the suspect committing the crime. And we have other data to say high confidence in an eyewitness is very persuasive to jurors. The researchers suggest strategies for eye-witness testimony also recommended in prior research.

After viewing mugshots, an eyewitness should not be asked for further identifications. For example, if there are multiple eyewitnesses, only some should be exposed to mugshots and the others can make their identification from a lineup.

If there is only one witness, they will likely be asked to identify the perpetrator in the early stages of the crime’s investigation. This means their memory could be contaminated as the investigation continues. Thus, the literature suggests, “other forensic evidence” should be used to support the witness testimony.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, it is in your best interest to carefully examine the process through which eyewitnesses have been led during the investigatory phases. When memory is so very easy to contaminate (and we know eyewitness testimony is notoriously invalid), it is important to consider educating the jurors on eyewitness errors.

The problem is (as mentioned above) that a falsely confident eyewitness can be a compelling factor in jury deliberations. And in at least 242 cases, those confident eyewitnesses were very, very wrong.

Kersten, AW, Earles, JL (2016). Feelings of familiarity and false memory for specific associations resulting from mugshot exposure. Memory and Cognition, 45(1): 93.


Comments Off on Guilt by association: One way that eyewitness testimonies go  wrong

Recently we saw the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia (1967) which ruled marriage across racial lines was legal throughout the US. In honor of this milestone, Pew Research Center has released a series of articles examining intermarriage in the US. We think it a good use of blog space to update you on the frequency of intermarriage in this country (which is rising—just like the US population is becoming increasingly racially diverse).

Less than a year ago (September 2016) , we posted on those who find interracial marriage “icky” so here are some prevalence numbers on intermarriage in the US. This posts reviews just a few of the pieces of information Pew shares across four different articles:


10% of married Americans in 2015 had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity. Pew says that translates into 11M intermarried people in the US.

Since 1980, the percentage of Blacks who married someone of a different race or ethnicity has tripled (from 5% to 18%).

Whites have also experienced a dramatic increase in intermarriage since 1980 (from 4% to 11%) but they remain the least likely of all major racial and ethnic groups to marry someone of a different race or ethnicity.

Asian (29%) and Hispanic (27%) newlyweds are the two most likely groups to intermarry. Of those newlyweds who were also born in the US, the percentages are even high among Hispanics (39%) and Asians (46%).

Male Black newlyweds (24%) are more likely than female Black newlyweds (12%) to intermarry. The opposite gender patter is true for Asian newlyweds with 36% of Asian women intermarrying compared with 21% of Asian male newlyweds. (Pew says the gender comparisons among White and Hispanic newlyweds who intermarry are roughly similar.)

As the prevalence of intermarriage increasing, American attitudes toward intermarriage have also become more accepting. In the past 7 years, says Pew, the number of Americans saying marrying someone of a different race is good for society has risen from 24% to 39%. Similarly, opposition to intermarriage is undergoing an even more dramatic decline according to Pew—although there is a sharp partisan divide in attitudes toward intermarriage. (Democrats and Independents leaning Democrat (49%) say intermarriage is a good thing for our society but only 28% of Republicans and Independents leaning Republican agree.)

Intermarriage also varies by education with 46% of Hispanic newlyweds with a college degree intermarrying (as compared to 16% with a high school diploma or less). Among Black newlyweds with a college degree, 21% intermarry compared to those with some college (17%) or a high school diploma or less (15%).

Cohabitation with a partner of a different race or ethnicity

Cohabitation is on the rise (6%) in the US, while marriage is declining (although half of American adults are married). Cohabitants with a partner of a different race or ethnicity (18%) are similar in number to married people in the US (17%) in an intermarriage.

Cohabitation with someone of a different race or ethnicity also varies by age or generation. It is likely not surprising that Millennials and GenXers (about 20% each) have a higher rate of living with a partner of a different race or ethnicity than do Boomers (13%) and Silents (9%).

Cohabitation also varies by race and ethnicity (much like marriage) in the US. White adults are least likely to cohabit with a partner of a different race or ethnicity (12% compared with 11% of White newlyweds). Black cohabitants (20%) and Hispanic cohabitants (24%) also loosely mirror the intermarriage rates among Black (18%) and Hispanic (27%) newlyweds. Asian cohabitants with partners of a different race or ethnicity (46%)show a very different pattern from Asian newlyweds (29%).

Education level and cohabitation mirrors the numbers among newlyweds with a partner of a different race or ethnicity, with those with more education somewhat more likely to have a significant other of a different race or ethnicity.

Metropolitan area variations in intermarriage 

It is likely not surprising that intermarriage is more common in metropolitan areas (18% of newlyweds) than in rural areas (11%).

There is huge variation in metro areas with Honolulu, Hawaii (42%) having the highest share of intermarried newlyweds, compared to Las Vegas, Nevada and Santa Barbara, California coming in at a tie for second (at around 30%). These are all very racially and ethnically diverse areas and Pew thinks the diversity contributes to higher intermarriage rates.

Intermarriage is also typically more common among members of the military and thus metropolitan areas with military bases nearby often have higher rates of intermarriage.

On the low-end in terms of frequency, you will see only 3% of newlyweds intermarry in Jackson, Mississippi and Asheville, North Carolina. Pew also reports rates in Greenville, South Carolina and Birmingham, Alabama (each about 6%), Chattanooga, Tennessee (5%), and Youngstown, Ohio (4%). Pew introduces some interesting numbers on population diversity here. While Jackson and Birmingham have fairly diverse populations—Asheville and Youngstown do not.

Pew explains by citing the geographical disparity in the number of those who say more interracial marriage is bad for society. Unlike in the West (4%) and Northeast (5%)—there are higher numbers of people disapproving of intermarriage in the South (13%) and the MidWest (11%). If you are curious about specific numbers for various metropolitan areas, Pew has that too!

From a litigation advocacy perspective, if race or ethnicity is a factor in your case (either salient or not salient with non-salient being the most dangerous in terms of racial biases)—this is a good resource to use to draw initial hypotheses (for testing in pretrial research) regarding which jurors may be least biased against your case facts.

Before we had this kind of data, we would ask ourselves some simple questions that still appear to be worthwhile, based on the research.

Which jurors are likely to have had genuine relationships with people [ethnically] similar to my client?

Which jurors are likely to show more open-mindedness toward my client?

Which people are likely to be uncomfortable or opposed to intermarriage?

The research is largely what would have been predicted. If there is somehow an issue in your case about intermarriage, younger and better-educated people are more tolerant, while older and less well-educated are most opposed. Maybe it is simply a function of exposure and life experience, or discomfort with the pace of social change in those who may be more rooted in the past. In any case, intolerance has to be considered a factor.

May 18, 2017. Intermarriage across the US by metro area.

May 18, 2017. In US metro areas, huge variation in intermarriage rates.

May 18, 2017. Intermarriage in the U.S. 50 Years After Loving v. Virginia.

June 8, 2017. Among US cohabiters, 18% have a partner of a different race or ethnicity.


Comments Off on Know Your Jurors: Intermarriage in the US 50 years  after Loving v. Virginia

And it doesn’t really matter if the expert is male or female, if they are young or old, and they can be any ethnicity! In other words, said the researchers—the variables we have read so much about (i.e., gender, age, ethnicity) are not as notable as whether someone “looks like” our stereotype of a “good scientist”. Very intriguing in the search for the “perfect expert”. The researchers completed six separate studies and we want to give you the results using their words because the findings are so very consistent across the studies.

In the first two studies, the researchers asked participants to rate actual “faces of scientists from physics (N = 108) and genetics/human genetics (N = 108) departments of 200 US universities” on attractiveness and intelligence and to say how interested they would be in hearing the scientist’s work. Here’s how they summarize their results:

In sum, scientists who appear competent, moral, and attractive are more likely to garner interest in their work; those who appear competent and moral but who are relatively unattractive and apparently unsociable create a stronger impression of doing high-quality research.

[As a digression, one of the most interesting lectures I sat through in undergrad social psychology a whole bunch of years ago described the LLAAT, or the “Looks Like an Astronaut Test”. Yes. NASA conducted a study to determine whether people’s visual impressions of astronaut candidates was actually predictive of their success in the training program. Supposedly, it was useful. I can’t locate this study anymore, so I can’t verify the study, but it seems a fair precedent for the current research. And, at 19, this struck me as very funny.]

In plain English, when you are less attractive and less socially skilled, you are seen as doing better quality research—perhaps because you fulfill our stereotypes of what a “nerd” should look like. Maybe the fact that you look like you have a very limited social life makes you a credible candidate for weekends in the library or laboratory.

In the next two studies, the participants were shown photos of scientists paired with various science news articles. “Study 3 examined whether the effects of face-based impressions were moderated by the scientist’s gender, academic discipline, and communication format (text versus video); study 4 explored the distinct contributions of facial competence and attractiveness, and the moderating influence of participant demographics.” And here is what they found:

Taken together, these studies show that facial appearance affects the public’s selection of science news stories. [While participants initially were drawn to the research of attractive scientists, they were more interested in listening to the less attractive scientists. We also want to insert here that the researchers describe the less attractive scientists as those with “interesting faces”.]

For the final two studies, “Finally, we tested the consequences of face-based impressions for the public’s appraisal of a scientist’s work. We paired articles from news websites with faces that did or did not look like good scientists.” [Helpful translation: whether they were “interesting looking” or more classically attractive.] The researchers describe their findings this way:

Research that was paired with the photo of a good scientist was judged to be higher quality, and this effect was unaffected by the scientist’s gender and discipline.

That was in Study 5. In Study 6, the trend continues. “Participants read four physics news stories, each paired with a male face from one cell of the design. They were subsequently shown the face–article pairings one at a time and asked to imagine that they had been selected to judge how much each piece of research deserved to win a prize for excellence in science.

More-competent-looking scientists were judged more deserving of the prize.” [We don’t say this often but are these researchers not just the nicest and kindest researchers ever? Not unattractive or nerdy, but “interesting looking” and “more competent looking”.] One of our favorite neuroscience bloggers, the Neuroskeptic, dubs this the ‘ugly Einstein’ effect. The Neuroskeptic is obviously not as kind as these researchers but his thoughts are (as usual) worth reading.

Here’s how the researchers describe their overall results:

People reported more interest in the research of scientists who appear competent, moral, and attractive; [so we are initially drawn to the kinds of photos you would see of models pretending to be scientists—but….] when judging whether a researcher does “good science,” people again preferred scientists who look competent and moral, but also favored less sociable and more physically unattractive individuals.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, what this says is you want an expert who “looks like” our stereotypical image of a friendly, but slightly nerdy, high school Chemistry or Physics teacher. Or someone who looks like many of the cast members from the popular TV show who illustrate this post. These are “real scientists” who do “good science” and who presumably will display substance over style. [This is feel good science for all the “interesting looking” and “competent looking” among us.]

This article also echoes what we’ve heard from mock jurors for years. They want to hear from “real people” who can speak to them without being condescending yet also teach them what they need to know. They see those witnesses as much more credible and believable than their more traditionally attractive, polished and urbane colleagues.

Gheorghiu, A., Callan, M., & Skylark, W. (2017). Facial appearance affects science communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1620542114

(Open access here:


Comments Off on Your best bet for an expert witness is a friendly  nerd rather than an attractive scientist

If you are young(er) you likely know precisely what vocal fry means and if you are old(er)—probably not so much. It is a cultural phenomenon seen primarily (but not only) in young(er) women as described at the Mental Floss website:

“Vocal fry describes a specific sound quality caused by the movement of the vocal folds. In regular speaking mode, the vocal folds rapidly vibrate between a more open and more closed position as the air passes through. In vocal fry, the vocal folds are shortened and slack so they close together completely and pop back open, with a little jitter, as the air comes through. That popping, jittery effect gives it a characteristic sizzling or frying sound.”

While it is nice to have a specific definition, it is also nice to hear examples of ‘what’ vocal fry actually sounds like so you can know it when you hear it. Vocal fry is the subject of intense scrutiny by bloggers covering linguistic changes, is seen as yet another entry in the endless complaints on women who have the temerity to speak in public, and as something that bugs older, white men in particular. Vocal fry has been likened to what used to be called “valley girl speak”, is used by almost 2/3 of college students, and is a characteristic which spreads as described in the video below.

You can hear a few more examples of vocal fry and what to do about it here, here, and here. Singers use vocal fry (sometimes artificially lowering their voices to enhance the ‘fry’) and researchers are looking into how vocal fry enhances emotionality in songs. Some say the denigration of vocal fry in women is just one more way in which women are criticized and maybe that is just how their voice sounds. (It is a parallel argument to what we saw in our recent post on resting bitch face [RBF]).

Yet, vocal fry annoyed one man so much he took his significant other to a speech therapist to cure her of her annoying style of speaking (and naturally wrote an article about the experience to make her even more self-conscious than did the speech therapist). Others justify their criticism of vocal fry use by saying it will hurt your chances of getting a job (but only if you are a woman—not if you are a man) and this one is apparently backed up by actual research!

“Young adult female voices exhibiting vocal fry are perceived as less competent, less educated, less trustworthy, less attractive, and less hirable. The negative perceptions of women who use vocal fry are stronger when the listener is also a woman. Collectively, these results suggest young American women should avoid vocal fry in order to maximize labor market perceptions, particularly when being interviewed by another woman.”

While the use of vocal fry is often attributed to women only, men apparently do a lot of vocal fry(ing) also and you can listen to this audio link of famous males using vocal fry as they speak. Apparently, radio shows, podcasts, and even television shows get multiple complaints from viewers about the annoying female vocal fry but they receive few if any complaints when male reporters use vocal fry. Hmmmm.

Here’s a thought from a 2013 Slate article (which also echoes the idea that older men in positions of authority find vocal fry particularly annoying):

As women gain status and power in the professional world, young women may not be forced to carefully modify totally benign aspects of their behavior in order to be heard. Our speech may not yet be considered professional, but it’s on its way there.

Once, an anxious parent wrote into Liberman’s blog to complain that a Ph.D. daughter populates her speech with uptalks (i.e., raising vocal inflection at the end of sentences), as do her doctor/lawyer peers. Could Liberman point to any research proving the “negative effects” of this feminine affectation?

“You’re certainly entitled to your crotchets and irks, just as your adult daughter is entitled to her prosodic preferences,” Liberman responded. “But in order for the two of you to get along, something’s going to have to give. And realistically, it’s you.”

In other words, listeners may want to get over it. But what does that mean from a litigation perspective? One of the key concerns for any public speaker (including lawyers, witnesses, and everyone else), is credibility. Styles of speech can appear sincere, frivolous, knowledgeable, or phony. As one who finds this style of speech an affectation, it reflects something about the values, priorities, and preferences of the speaker.

The speaker is working on making an impression, rather than coming across as authentic and persuasive. If a person wants to appear genuine and authoritative, examining the factors (including speech and accent) that guide impressions is worthwhile. This is one of those cases where you may want to consider pretrial research and getting mock juror reactions to a witness’ speech patterns. If they find the witnesses style of speaking “annoying”—it may be worth doing some preparation to modify speech patterns for testifying. The witness would still say the same things—they might just say them a bit differently.

It reminds me of a mock trial we did in East Texas where the attorney was concerned about how an actual jury would react to the speech of a man with vocal fry as an artifact of a chronic disease. We decided to test the younger male witness and did so by simply questioning him about his illness and how his voice related to that illness. Upon hearing that explanation, jurors embraced his testimony warmly.

But for witnesses with vocal fry unrelated to any medical condition, you cannot say, “I am younger, and people my age and most of my friends talk this way” and expect to be embraced. Instead, you may have to work on your speaking voice and intonation to see if it can be modified for courtroom testimony. While it will likely be irritating to the individual witness (particularly if they understand that men are not described as annoying when they use vocal fry)—it is likely to be more irritating to be dismissed by your audience in the courtroom as lacking in credibility.

Anderson RC, Klofstad CA, Mayew WJ, & Venkatachalam M (2014). Vocal fry may undermine the success of young women in the labor market. PLoS ONE, 9 (5) PMID: 24870387.

You can also find the full-text here:


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Do you want to know the future? You may want to say it all depends on which aspects of your future. Typically, while we seek information routinely to make decisions in our day-to-day lives, we don’t always want to know for sure what will happen in our futures. These researchers remind us about the story of Cassandra in Greek mythology.

“According to Greek mythology, Apollo granted Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, the power of foreseeing the future. Yet after his failed attempt to seduce her, he placed a curse on her so that her prophecies would never be believed. Cassandra foresaw the fall of Troy, the death of her father, the hour of her own death, and the name of her murderer. To helplessly watch the approach of future horrors became a source of endless pain, suffering, and regret of her terrible solitary knowledge.”

They also invoke Bob Dylan’s classic line from the song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,

“How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?”

They then summarize the research which shows us that people do not often want to know about specific results of genetic testing, or HIV tests, or even whether they are likely to become demented. What the researchers are most interested in, however, is what they call “deliberate ignorance”.

“We use the term deliberate ignorance to refer to the willful decision not to know, as opposed to the inability to access information or disinterest in the question. Deliberate ignorance can result from inaction, that is, not searching for diagnostic information, or from action, such as refusing information that someone else offers.”

In other words, when you actively choose not to know, you are willfully choosing to remain deliberately ignorant which is very different, according to the researchers, than simply not knowing—i.e., being ignorant. So the researchers did two different experiments (one in Germany and one in Spain (both with non-student populations) to see how common deliberate ignorance was and to investigate whether there was a pattern to choices to remain deliberately ignorant.

In Germany, they asked participants five positive questions and five negative questions — to ascertain in which situations the individual would choose deliberate ignorance. Here is how their sample (of more than 900 participants) responded:

Negative events:

Would you want to know today when your partner will die? No: 89.5%.

Would you want to know today from what cause your partner will die? No: 90.4%.

Would you want to know today when you will die? No: 87.7%.

Would you want to know today from what cause you will die? No: 87.3%.

Assume you are newly married. Would you want to know today whether your marriage will eventually end in divorce or not? No: 86.5%.

Positive events:

Assume you video-recorded a soccer world-champion game because you could not watch it live. While you are watching the recording, a friend enters who has already watched the game. Would you want to know from the friend how it ended (as opposed to asking not to tell)? No: 76.9%.

Would you want to know in advance what you are getting for Christmas? No: 59.6%.

Would you like to know whether there is life after death? No: 56.9%.

Assume you bought a blue sapphire for 2,000 euros during your vacation in Sri Lanka. The dealer assured you that the sapphire is genuine. Back home, you can check this, but you have no chance of lodging a complaint or returning the stone. A test would cost 50 euros. Would you have the sapphire tested to be sure whether it is genuine or not? No: 48.6%.

Assume you/your partner is pregnant. The gender of the child can be reliably determined by ultrasound. Would you want to know the gender of your child before birth? No: 40.3%.

The researchers saw this response pattern as showing “widespread deliberate ignorance” for both negative events and for positive events. They thought this inconsistent with the human desire to avoid uncertainty so they went to Spain to see if things were different there. They found the same patterns in Spain.

The researchers conclude it is common for people to choose to remain “deliberately ignorant” to avoid negative news but also to maintain the positive emotions of surprise and suspense surrounding personally important events. Cassandra, in Greek mythology, was unable to make the choice to remain deliberately ignorant. That is not the case for us—as is seen in the choices many of the German and Spanish citizens made to remain deliberately ignorant.

Additionally, the researchers found that the closer in age the participants were to the likelihood of a negative event happening (e.g., divorce, death of a partner, old-age health problems), the more likely they were to choose deliberate ignorance.

There was also an odd (and potentially useful) finding in this study. One of the questions researchers asked was what kind of insurance policies the participants had purchased. What they found was those that had purchased policies that were not mandated by the country or immediate area in which they lived, were slightly more likely to choose deliberate ignorance for future events.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is a good point to remember and to educate jurors on in opening statement. There are times we simply do not want to know (whether about something positive or something negative) and so we make a choice. We have all done this and it allows us to be happier before negative things happen and to enjoy the surprise inherent in good things happening. That choice does not mean we have failed to do something, it simply means we are doing what (apparently) the majority of people do and choosing not to know.

Gigerenzer G, & Garcia-Retamero R (2017). Cassandra’s regret: The psychology of not wanting to know. Psychological Review, 124 (2), 179-196 PMID: 28221086


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