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Psychology in the Courtroom

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Psychology in the Courtroom

The main goals of psychology are to describe, explain, predict, and improve human thoughts, behaviours and processes.

As you can imagine, this can offer some interesting insights into the courtroom. How a witness or defendant behaves, their characteristics and how easily they are persuaded can all have an influence over the decisions made in the courtroom. Using psychology, we can explore these different areas of human behaviour.

Although it has been mostly disproven or dismissed, one of the most infamous examples of implementing psychological techniques in the courtroom can be seen in the use of a lie detector! Let's explore some other examples of psychology and the courtroom.

Psychology in the Courtroom, psychology in the justice system, StudySmarterPsychology in the Justice System, freepik.com

Psychology in the Justice System

There are several ways that psychology affects the justice system. One example that is very famous in psychology is the research by Loftus and Palmer (1974) who discovered that when questions are asked to witnesses in a certain way (misleading questions), they can alter their memories and cause their eyewitness testimonies to become less accurate.

Here we will be focusing on different things in psychology that affect what occurs specifically in the courtroom.

Psychology in the Courtroom: Jury Decision Making

The jury's decision varies depending on the situation, but other factors can also influence their judgment, sometimes without them being aware of it. These factors can include the appearance, race, accent and type of crime of the defendant, and even the level of confidence of the witness. Both forensic and social psychology is involved in the courtroom.

Forensic Psychology in the Courtroom

Forensic psychologists have responsibilities in the civil and criminal court systems, such as doing mental health checks, giving legal opinions regarding topics like child custody, and providing expert testimonies on the stand. One of the main responsibilities is letting the court know about the fallibility of memory which affects the accuracy of eyewitness testimonies.

Research has investigated and proven how inaccurate eyewitness testimony can be (e.g. Loftus and Palmer, 1974).

Howe and Knott (2015) explained that memories aren't encoded in our brains like recordings, but are subject to change based on our experiences (schemas). Lacy and Stark (2013) concluded in a review that memories in a stressful event are not encoded very accurately. The main gist of the event is strongly encoded, but the peripheral, minor details are weakly encoded.

Memory is a reconstructive process that is susceptible to distortion - Lacy and Stark (2013)

Witnesses Confidence

The amount of confidence a witness has in their eyewitness testimony can have an effect on the jury's evaluation of how accurate it is, and therefore, affects their decision of judging the defendant.

Penrod and Cutler (1995) conducted a study where they did a mock trial with a witness of a robbery, who gave their testimony on a videotape recording. When the witness claimed they were 100% confident about their testimony, the participants acting as jurors gave guilty verdicts to the robber 67% of the time. When the witness claimed they were only 80% accurate, the participants gave a guilty verdict to the robber 60% of the time.

Therefore, the higher the confidence of the witness, the more likely jurors were to pass a guilty verdict on the defendant. This may be because truthfulness, knowledge and reliability may be associated with confidence, whilst being nervous and shy may be associated with the feeling that the witness is lying.

Psychology in the Courtroom, illustration of Psychology in the courtroom, StudySmarterPsychology in the courtroom, freepik.com/rawpixel

Social Psychology in the Courtroom

Social Psychology is also involved in the courtroom and different social characteristics of defendants and witnesses can influence the jury's opinions and decisions.

Halo Effect

The Halo effect is when people assume that attractive characteristics/people are good. This is based on the idea that if something has one good/positive characteristic, then it has others too.

Castellow et al. (1990) conducted a mock trial and told participants acting as the jury to read a sexual harassment case. It had pictures of the victim and defendant included, where both would be considered either attractive or unattractive. They then asked the participants to give the defendant a guilty or non-guilty verdict.

When the victim was considered attractive but the defendant unattractive, the guilty verdicts were given 77% of the time. But when the victim was considered unattractive and the defendant attractive, guilty verdicts dramatically decreased to 56%. This provides support for the halo effect. It also supports the opposite implied effect, which would be that unattractive people have other negative qualities too. Mock jurors were ready to believe what they perceived as a beautiful woman who accused an unattractive man of sexual assault but was not ready to believe an unattractive woman accusing a handsome man of sexual assault.

However, attractiveness doesn't always influence the jury. This effect depends on the type of crime committed.

Psychology in the Courtroom, an outline of a woman and flowers, StudySmarterOutline of a woman and flowers, freepik.com/rawpixel

Sigall and Ostrove (1995) made participants read a case in which a female defendant either committed a burglary or fraud. She was described as either attractive or unattractive. The attractive defendant was given a shorter sentence for burglary, but a longer sentence for fraud.

This may be because the jury participants thought she used her beauty to commit the crime by manipulating people. Therefore, this shows that attractiveness makes people assume other characteristics are good too until the attractiveness is misused by committing bad deeds since the person is then thought to be more dangerous and manipulative.

Race

Ogloff (1991) found that white uni students were more likely to give a defendant a guilty verdict if they were black, and even more so if their victim was white. It was found that this finding was present in real trials, too, and it was only when the courtroom stressed the need for a fair, prejudice-free verdict that this was affected.

Black defendants are more likely to face a longer sentence than a white person who has committed the same crime.

In America, the murderer of a white victim is more likely to get the death penalty than the murderer of a black victim.

Eberhardt (2006) investigated the correlation between defendants receiving the death penalty and having stereotypically black features. She looked at death penalty eligible cases in Philadelphia between 1997-1999 in which a black defendant had killed a white victim.

Analysis showed that defendants with stereotypically black features were given the death penalty significantly more often (57.5%) than those with less stereotypically black features (24.4%), even though they, too, were black. This shows that Ethnocentrism plays a role in juries' decisions.

Ethnocentrism is a way of perceiving the world based on your own values and cultures. This is used as a frame of reference when judging all behaviours both in and outside of your own culture, instead of adopting an objective approach. Other cultures are perceived through the lens of what is and aren't acceptable in your own culture, and this applies to behaviours, religious beliefs, societal rules, and so on.

Psychology in the Courtroom, Black defendant, StudySmarter Black Defendant, freepik.comPsychology in the Courtroom, White defendant, StudySmarterWhite Defendant, freepik.com

Videotape Testimonies and Protective Shields

In cases where there are only sensitive child witnesses that require protection against the stress and trauma of being in a courtroom due to the nature of the crime, videotape/video call testimonies or testimonies given behind a protective screen are sometimes allowed. However, defence lawyers have argued that this makes the defendant seem more dangerous, and hence, more guilty.

Ross et al. (1994) investigated this argument by doing an experiment in which participants either saw a child's testimony given via videotape, behind a protective shield or in open court. However, the findings showed no significant differences between the conditions, meaning there's no harm in a child giving testimony behind a protective shield or videotape since it has no effect on the perception of how guilty the defendant is.

Key Study - Dixon et al. (2002) Accents of Guilt: Effects of Regional Accent, Race, and Crime Type on Attributions of Guilt.

The following study explored the effect of accent, race, and crime type on guilty verdicts.

Aim

Dixon et al. (2002) aimed to investigate the halo effect by looking at different characteristics in defendants that they hypothesised would play a role in influencing the decision of the jury.

Design

This was a lab experiment and the 3 Independent Variables were:

  1. Accent (Birmingham or Standard)
  2. Race (Black or White)
  3. Type of Crime (Blue Collar- Armed Robbery, or White Collar- Cheque Fraud)

The Dependent Variables were:

  1. The participants' verdicts of guilt
  2. Speech Evaluation Instrument (SEI)

Participants

Overall there were 119 white undergraduate psychology students from the University of Worcester. 24 males and 95 females participated, with a mean age of 25.2 years. Participants who grew up in Birmingham were excluded to avoid bias.

Procedure

A 2 minute pre-recorded transcript that was based on a real case was played for the participants. It included a conversation between a young male suspect and a middle-aged policeman. Participants heard the suspect having one of the 2 accents.

  • The race of the suspect was manipulated by contextual cues in the transcript.
  • Participants rated the suspect's guilt on a 7-point scale.
  • Participants also rated the suspect on the SEI - which measured Superiority (being better, stronger, etc.), Attractiveness (being pleasing in sound or appearance), and Dynamism (being keen to make progress or full of energy).

Results

They found that suspects with a Birmingham accent were rated significantly more guilty than suspects with Standard English accents.

Black suspects were not rated significantly more guilty than white suspects. This implies that race alone doesn't lead to guilty verdicts. Blue-collar crimes were not rated significantly more guilty than white-collar crimes. However, an interaction effect was found between Birmingham accent, black and blue-collar crime, that when these variables interacted (i.e. were all present) guilt was rated significantly higher.

Having a Birmingham accent was rated low on the SEI in 'Superiority'. 'Superiority' and 'Attractiveness' were accurate predictors of guilt, but 'Dynamism' wasn't.

Conclusions

When different social-psychological features are present in a suspect and the crime they committed, it can have an effect on the judgments of the jury and make them find the suspect more or less guilty than others of the same type, e.g. finding a black suspect that has a Birmingham accent and committed a blue-collar crime (robbery) more guilty than a white suspect with a standard English accent who committed a white-collar crime (cheque fraud).

This has quite serious implications because even though both crimes included stealing money, the first suspect will be found more guilty and could be charged with a longer sentence than the second suspect. The combination of the above factors influenced the outcome of the verdict, despite these factors not having much to do with the actual crime, a worrying conclusion on the fairness of trials and the potential biases involved.

Application

There are different ways in which research about psychology in the courtroom could have an influence on how things actually happen in the courtroom, specifically, by improving things.

Appearance

As Castello's (1990) research suggests, appearances influence the jury's verdict about the defendant's guilt, so it's advised that the defendant dress formally and clean up for the trial proceedings.

Witness Confidence

Witness confidence can be increased by using witness familiarisation (explaining what will happen in court and how) as to not affect the opinions of the jury about the guilt of the defendant.

Expert Testimony

Loftus (1980) also did a mock trial of a violent crime where half the jury participants read an expert's testimony and the other half didn't. The expert testimony had written that witnesses find it harder to identify people of a different race and that the witness being drunk, or having stress caused by a weapon being present, can interfere with accurate identification. Jurors spent longer scrutinising the ey

Therefore, the expert's testimony supported the defendant. An expert's testimony caused more doubt and discussion about the defendant's guilt, while the absence of an expert's testimony resulted in more guilty verdicts being given.

Psychology in the Courtroom, courtroom procedures, StudySmarterCourtroom Procedures, pixabay.com

Story and Witness Order

Social psychologists point out that people often try to construct a story of an event so it makes sense. This includes jurors. Therefore, the prosecution and defence try to 'tell a story' with their arguments because Pennington and Hastie (1988) suggest that the jurors are more likely to return the verdict that best fits the story they've constructed.

Witness order - When lawyers present one witness after the other, but their testimonies don't form the order of the event.

Story order - when lawyers show evidence in the order of the events, meaning it's easier to understand.

Pennington and Hastie (1988) aimed to see whether jurors were more persuaded by story order than witness order. They found that when the prosecution presented evidence in story order and defence in witness order, the jury gave guilty verdicts 78% of the time. But when the defence gave evidence in story order and the prosecution in witness order, the jury gave guilty verdicts 31% of the time.

This shows that whichever side of the argument makes the most sense to them is the side the jury is most likely to support, and this is best achieved by presenting evidence in story order.

Evaluation of Mock Trials and Psychology in the courtroom

Let's consider the strengths and weaknesses of using mock trials.

Strengths

  • They are more ethical and practical than using real-life trials.
  • Mock trials can be highly standardised and easily replicated which increases their reliability and allows for different hypotheses to be tested with the same procedures and evidence.
  • Findings from mock trials can help lawyers and jurors have more insight into what does and don't affect judgments, to help keep trials as fair as possible.
  • Psychology in the courtroom offers various techniques to try and identify bias, potential memory problems and improve judging outcomes for those involved in the judicial process.

Weaknesses

  • Mock trials often involve receiving evidence in forms (e.g. transcripts, video and audio recordings) that aren't representative of how real trials are carried out. Also, they are shorter than actual trials.
  • Mock trials generally involve university students, which isn't reflective of a real jury that has people of various ages and ethnicities.
  • They also involve jurors making their own verdicts, which isn't like real trials in which jurors discuss and come up with a decision together.
  • Also, in mock trials, jurors are aware their verdicts have no serious consequences and there is an absence of the seriousness and emotions that are present in a real trial.
  • All of these things reduce ecological validity and make it harder to generalise findings.
  • Psychological techniques overall are subject to the above issues, as they often use mock trials, and thus have the same potential weaknesses.

Psychology in the Courtroom - Key takeaways

  • There are several psychological factors that affect the justice system and what goes on in the courtroom.
  • Forensic Psychology: Inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony has been proven by Loftus and Palmer (1974), and should be mentioned to the jury, and witness confidence also has an effect on the jury's verdicts of guilt (Penrod and Cutler, 1995).
  • Social Psychology: Halo Effect - When the positive characteristic of being attractive is associated with other positive characteristics, e.g. being good. Castello (1990) found that the attractiveness of the defendant and victim had an influence on the jury's guilty verdicts.
  • Sigall and Ostrove (1995) further researched and found that it's not just attractiveness, but also the type of crime they committed.
  • Race - Eberhardt (2006) found that people with stereotypically black features were more likely to get the death penalty.
  • Protective Shields and Videotape Witnesses - Ross et al. (1994) found that there's no effect on the jury's decision if a child gives a testimony behind a protective shield or videotape, despite lawyers arguing that it makes the defendant seem more guilty.
  • Key study Dixon et al. (2002) Accent, Race, and Crime Type - They found that accent had an influence on the jury's guilt ratings of the defendant (it increased the likelihood). Also, an interaction effect was found between Birmingham accent, black and blue-collar crime, that when these variables interacted (i.e. were all present) guilt was rated significantly higher. Also, 'Superiority' and 'Attractiveness' were accurate predictors of guilt, but 'Dynamism' wasn't.
  • Applications from psychological research can improve the justice system and courtroom proceedings, e.g. by considering appearance and the halo effect, witness confidence, expert testimony, and story and witness order.
  • Strengths of mock trials include being more ethical and practical than real-life trials, having standardised procedures, which increases replicability (and hence, reliability), and the findings from them help make the courtroom and its procedures fairer.
  • Weaknesses of mock trials include various issues that decrease ecological validity, which makes it hard to generalise findings.

Frequently Asked Questions about Psychology in the Courtroom

Psychologists have different roles in the courtroom. Forensic psychologists have the responsibilities in the civil and criminal court systems such as doing mental health checks, giving legal opinions regarding things like child custody, and providing expert testimonies on the stand, e.g. about the fallibility of human memory, particularly pertaining to the inaccuracy of eye witness testimony. Also, that witness confidence has an effect on jury decisions.

Social psychologists can inform the court that there are other factors that effect jury decision making too, e.g. appearance (halo effect), race, accent and crime type of the defendant.

The research conducted regarding these factors can be applied to courtroom procedures to improve them and make them fairer.

Forensic psychologists have the responsibilities in the civil and criminal court systems such as doing mental health checks, giving legal opinions regarding things like child custody, and providing expert testimonies on the stand, e.g. about the fallibility of human memory, particularly pertaining to the inaccuracy of eye witness testimony. Also, that witness confidence has an effect on jury decisions. 

Yes, psychology can be used in the court to identify which factors effect the courtroom procedures and in what way. So far, psychological research has shown that there are several things that influence the decisions of the jury (whether or not the give a guilty verdict), such as appearance (halo effect), race, accent and crime type of the defendant. Witness confidence also has an effect on jury decisions. 

Psychology can also be used in court in the form of forensic psychologists providing their expert opinions on matters, as to provide insights into cases so that the jury can make an informed decision.

Court psychology, or psychology in the courtroom, involves forensic psychologists providing their expert opinions on matters, as to provide insights into cases so that the jury can make an informed decision.

It also involves using psychological research that has been conducted to show which factors affect jury decisions, so that they can be mindful of them when making their decision, e.g. appearance (halo effect), race, accent and crime type of the defendant. Witness confidence also has an effect on jury decisions. 

The relationship between psychology and the law is that in the courtroom, some things that come up during the trial need to be explained by an expert, e.g. a forensic psychologist, so that the jury have insight and can make an informed decision about the defendant's verdict. This is a forensic psychologists job, as well as giving legal opinions and doing mental health checks.

Final Psychology in the Courtroom Quiz

Question

What is the halo effect?

Show answer

Answer

When the positive characteristic of being attractive is associated with other positive characteristics, e.g. being good. 

Show question

Question

What did Castello (1990) find regarding the halo effect?

Show answer

Answer

Castello (1990) found that attractiveness of the defendant and victim had an influence on the jury's guilty verdicts. When the victim was attractive but the defendant was unattractive, the guilty verdicts were given 77% of the time. But when the victim was unattractive and the defendant was attractive, guilty verdicts dramatically decreased to 56%. 

Show question

Question

What did Sigall and Ostrove (1995) find regarding the halo effect?

Show answer

Answer

Sigall and Ostrove (1995) found that it's not just attractiveness, but also the type of crime the defendant committed. If it's inferred by the jury that attractiveness was used to manipulate others and commit the crime, it's taken as a negative thing rather than positive, and affects the jury's decision.

In their study, a female defendant who was described as attractive was given a shorter sentence for burglary, but a longer sentence for fraud.  

Show question

Question

What did Eberhardt (2006) find regarding race and the death penalty?

Show answer

Answer

Eberhardt (2006) found that defendants with stereotypically black features were given the death penalty significantly more often (57.5%) than those with less stereotypically black features (24.4%), even though they too were black.  

Show question

Question

What did Ross et al. (1994) find regarding the jury's decision and Protective Shields and Videotape Witnesses for children?

Show answer

Answer

Ross et al. (1994) found that there's no effect on the jury's decision if a child gives a testimony behind a protective shield or videotape, despite lawyers arguing that it makes the defendant seem more guilty.

Show question

Question

What were the 3 IVs in the study by Dixon et al. (2002)?

Show answer

Answer

  1. Accent (Birmingham or Standard)
  2. Race (Black or White)
  3. Type of Crime (Blue Collar- Armed Robbery, or White Collar- Cheque Fraud)


Show question

Question

Was race found to have a significant effect on guilt ratings in the study by Dixon et al. (2002)?


Show answer

Answer

No

Show question

Question

Was crime type found to have a significant effect on guilt ratings in the study by Dixon et al. (2002)? 

Show answer

Answer

No

Show question

Question

Was accent found to have a significant effect on guilt ratings in the study by Dixon et al. (2002)? 


Show answer

Answer

Yes

Show question

Question

Was was the finding regarding an interaction effect between race, accent and crime type in the study by Dixon et al. (2002)? 


Show answer

Answer

There was a significant interaction effect

Show question

Question

What were the significant predictors of guilt on the SEI scale in the study by Dixon et al. (2002)?  

Show answer

Answer

'Superiority' and 'Attractiveness' were accurate predictors of guilt, but 'Dynamism' wasn't.

Show question

Question

Which 4 ways can psychological research be applied to the justice system and courtroom proceedings to improve them?

Show answer

Answer

By considering appearance and the halo effect, witness confidence, expert testimony, and story and witness order.

Show question

Question

What do the strengths of Mock trials include?

Show answer

Answer

Strengths of mock trials include being more ethical and practical than real life trials, having standardised procedures, which increases replicability (and hence, reliability), and the findings from them help make the courtroom and its procedures more fair. 

Show question

Question

What was the main problem with the weaknesses of mock trials?

Show answer

Answer

The various issues in the weaknesses of mock trials were all things that decrease ecological validity, which makes it hard to generalise findings. 

Show question

Question

What did Penrod and Cutler (1995) find regarding witnesses that influenced the jury's verdicts of guilt?

Show answer

Answer

When the witness claimed they were 100% confident about their testimony, the participants acting as jurors gave guilty verdicts to the robber 67% of the time. When the witness claimed they were only 80% accurate, the participants gave a guilty verdicts to the robber 60% of the time. Therefore, witness confidence also has an effect on the jury's verdicts of guilt  

Show question

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