How psychological research can decrease defective verdicts

The current issue of Scientific American has an excellent article, titled ”Your Brain on Trial,” about how psychological research can help prevent flawed verdicts. Unfortunately, authors Scott O. Lilienfeld and Robert Byron note, ”Many well-established psychological findings have yet to exert much influence on the legal system, in part because of a resistance to change and in part because of differing traditions. Whereas science tends to question common intuitions regarding human nature, the legal system tends to embrace them.”

Lilienfeld and Byron give many examples of how relatively minor reforms based on scientific research could help prevent wrongful convictions. Some of the reforms concerning eyewitness identification and false confessions have received a great deal of attention on this blog. One that hasn’t concerns the futility of a judge telling jurors to disregard inadmissible statements or questions.

Once the cat’s out of the bag, they write, the judge can’t put it back all that easily. ”False beliefs often persist long after they have been discredited,” they write. They say research has shown that such ”belief perseverance” is less likely to persist if the judge explains why the stricken statement is unfair to the prosecution or defense. But judges rarely do that.

Lilienfeld and Byron also point out that, while videotaping interrogations is a good thing, the way police set the cameras up to focus on the person being questioned ”engenders bias against the suspect, probably because observers are prone to attributing cause — and blame — to whatever is most visually salient.” They say that researchers at Ohio University found that ”broadening the camera angle to include both interrogator and suspect diminishes this bias.”

Simple reforms like these could help ensure valid verdicts. Unfortunately, nothing is simple when it comes to rigid criminal-justices systems. You can read the whole article here.

One response to “How psychological research can decrease defective verdicts

  1. This post has some very practical recommendations to reduce error that are not broadly known. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing, Martin.

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