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Chapter 16. Social Psychology and the Law. Social Psychology and the Law. Studying the legal system helps psychologists see how behavior occurs in complex, personally relevant, and emotion-laden contests. Eyewitness Testimony. Eyewitness identifications are frequently inaccurate.

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Chapter 16

Chapter 16

Social Psychology and the Law

Social psychology and the law
Social Psychology and the Law

  • Studying the legal system helps psychologists see how behavior occurs in complex, personally relevant, and emotion-laden contests.

Eyewitness testimony
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Eyewitness identifications are frequently inaccurate.

Eyewitness testimony1
Eyewitness Testimony

  • The three basic processes of acquisition, storage, and retrieval influence eyewitness memory, just as they influence all memory.

Eyewitness testimony2
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Two groups of factors influence eyewitness identification

  • Estimator variables

    • concern the eyewitness and the situation

  • System variables

    • are under the direct control of the criminal justice or legal system.

Eyewitness testimony3
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Viewing Opportunity

    • The longer witnesses look and the more attention they are able to pay, the more accurate their identifications

    • However, witnesses are just as likely to think they can make an identification if they have witnessed an event under poor viewing conditions.

Eyewitness testimony4
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Stress and Arousal

    • Stress increases memory for the event itself but decreases memory for what preceded and followed the incident

Eyewitness testimony5
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Weapon Focus Effect

    • People tend to keep their eye on weapons because of their danger and novelty

    • This distracts their attention from the robbers

Eyewitness testimony6
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Own-Race Bias

    • People are more accurate in identifying members of their own race

    • Own-race bias decreases with experience with other groups

      • Thus blacks are more accurate in identifying whites than vice versa.

Eyewitness testimony7
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Retention Interval

    • Accuracy drops with time rapidly at first, then levels off.

Eyewitness testimony8
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Suggestive Questioning

    • The way witnesses are questioned influences their memories of the event.

    • Some questions are suggestive but not deliberately misleading

      • E.g. Loftus & Palmer found that people said a car had been going faster in an accident if they asked about its speed when it “smashed” into the other car as opposed to “hit” it

    • Other questions are deliberately misleading, asking about nonexistent details.

Eyewitness testimony9
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Three hypotheses for how post-event information affects memory

    • over-writing

    • forgetting

    • source monitoring

      • People retain memories of both the event and any post-event information but cannot identify the source of the memories

  • Evidence supports the latter.

Eyewitness testimony10
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Lineup Biases

    • The way lineups are conducted can have a tremendous effect on the accuracy of eyewitness identification.

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Eyewitness Testimony

  • Show-ups

    • asks witnesses to indicate whether or not a single witness is the perpetrator

  • Simultaneous lineups

    • show the witness several potential suspects at the same time.

  • Sequential lineups

    • show potential suspects one at a time

Eyewitness testimony12
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Sequential lineups allow the most careful attention to each person and the most careful decision-making and are most accurate.

Eyewitness testimony13
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Another aspect of lineups is choosing foils (people other than the suspect in the lineup).

    • Identifications are most accurate when all of the foils look like the witness’s initial description of the perpetrator.

Eyewitness testimony14
Eyewitness Testimony

  • Instructions given to eyewitnesses are also important.

    • Identifications are most accurate when the witness is told that the suspect “may or may not” be in the lineup.

Eyewitness testimony15
Eyewitness Testimony

  • This research has affected U.S. Department of Justice guidelines for police to use when questioning eyewitnesses.

Criminal defendants
Criminal Defendants

  • Voluntary False Confessions.

    • Coerced complaint false confessions

      • when people are pressured to admit guilt but privately believe their own innocence.

    • Coerced internalized false confessions

      • when people come to believe they committed crimes they did not commit.

      • This may occur when the behavior seems plausible and when other people claim they are guilty.

Criminal defendants1
Criminal Defendants

  • Lie Detection

    • Observers do not detect lies at much better than chance rates

      • Despite nonverbal leakage

      • Law enforcement professionals are generally not more accurate

      • There is no correlation between how well people believe they detect lies and how well they actually do

Criminal defendants2
Criminal Defendants

  • Polygraph (“lie detector”) tests

    • ask suspects to answer questions while hooked to a machine that records physiological responses.

    • The control question test asks about the critical, as well as about unrelated, wrongdoings.

  • The accuracy of polygraph tests is debated

    • advocates claim 90% accuracy, while published research estimates 57-76% accuracy, not much better than chance (50%).

Criminal defendants3
Criminal Defendants

  • How do characteristics of defendants influence the decisions made by juries?

    • Physically attractive defendants are less likely to be found guilty.

    • Black defendants receive disproportionately harsher sentences than whites.

      • This result is found in archival studies while the results of lab studies are inconsistent.

Criminal defendants4
Criminal Defendants

  • Aversive racism theory

    • People should suppress racist thoughts when race is salient

    • Race may have an effect when people are unaware that it may have one.

    • Race may have an effect when people’s behavior can be justified by factors other than race.

    • According to this theory, jurors would be more likely to discriminate in trials where the race of the defendant is not made salient.

Criminal defendants5
Criminal Defendants

  • Sommers and Ellsworth (2000, 2001)

    • Participants read about a white or black defendant who slapped his girlfriend in public.

    • Half read that the defendant said, “You know better than to talk that way about a man in front of his friends.” The other half read the same sentence with the words “white man” or “black man.”

    • In the first condition (race not salient), white participants made harsher judgments against the black than against the white; there was no difference in the race-salient condition.


  • Jury Selection

    • The voir dire process allows judges and lawyers to question prospective jurors

      • Goal is to assess the presence of biases that would interfere with their ability to render a fair judgment.

    • Peremptory challenges allow attorneys to eliminate jurors for a number of reasons

      • E.g., occupation or personality traits (but not race or gender)


  • Demographic factors are not always predictive of verdicts

    • this is most likely when group membership is relevant to the case


  • Jurors who are high in authoritarianism are more likely to convict.

  • “Death qualified” juries are more likely to convict.


  • According to Hastie and Pennington’s story model of jury decision making, jurors use the evidence presented in trials to create stories about the events in question.

  • Multiple competing stories may be created

  • The story that best fits the evidence determines the verdict chosen.


  • Comprehension of Judicial Instructions

    • Juries may have problems understanding and applying legal instructions.

      • On-going research is looking for solutions, for example, rewriting instructions in more “user-friendly” language and allowing jurors to take notes.


  • Jury Deliberations

    • Twelve-person juries are more representative and spend more time deliberating than six-person juries.

    • Juries using a unanimous decision rule discuss the evidence longer and more thoroughly than juries using a majority decision rule.

Expert testimony
Expert Testimony

  • Psychologists are increasingly asked to give expert testimony in court cases.

    • Judges must consider the scientific reliability of the evidence, but may lack the necessary background to rule effectively.

Expert testimony1
Expert Testimony

  • Expert testimony that draws links between the research and the particular case has larger influence on jurors than research that just presents the research findings.