The police believe a lot of psychology myths related to their work

Despite recent improvements to their training, a new study in the journal of Police and Criminal Psychology suggests the police are as susceptible as the general public to holding false beliefs about psychology that apply to their work. The research, conducted in the UK, also showed that police officers have more confidence than the public in their false beliefs.

Chloe Chaplin, a programme facilitator at the London Probation Trust, and Julia Shaw, senior lecturer at South Bank university, recruited 44 UK police and other law enforcement officers and 56 participants with jobs unrelated to law enforcement, who were recruited via posters and social media, mostly from outside a university setting.

Participants were quizzed on a number of topics: police procedures and interrogations, for instance whether they agreed wrongly that “People only confess when they have actually committed the crime they are being charged with”; courts – measured by gauging mistaken agreement with statements like “Eye-witnesses are always the most reliable source of case-related information”; their beliefs about the effects of toughness on crime – “Capital punishment is an effective way to deter criminal activity”; their beliefs about mental illness – “Most mentally ill individuals are violent”; and beliefs about memory and cognition, in this case measured through their agreement with items like “If you are the victim of a violent crime, your memory for the perpetrators face will be perfect.” All of the above items, plus several others used in the research, are unsupported by research evidence, and were sprinkled in among true statements.

Training of UK police is in many areas strongly evidence-based, yet the police group were as likely to endorse the psychological misconceptions as the lay participants, having faith on average in 18 of the 50 false statements (vs. 19 among the public). A breakdown showed better performance only in one area, the courts subscale; in others, even those such as interview techniques where UK police receive standardised, evidence-based training, the police performed as poorly as the public. On top of this, the police showed greater confidence than the public that their false beliefs were correct. Expertise can breed overconfidence, with possibly severe consequences when the stakes are so high: the mentally ill and younger suspects are at particular risk of making false confessions, for example.

The research suggests that policing continues to be a worrying example of where there is a “science-practitioner gap” (i.e. modern research findings are failing to filter through to those working on the ground) – a problem that is familiar to psychologists from other occupational areas such as therapy and human resources. Chaplin and Shaw recommend more police training, but they emphasise such training needs to take account of real-life contexts to be convincing, and it needs to be persuasive enough to displace existing beliefs.


Chaplin, C., & Shaw, J. (2015). Confidently Wrong: Police Endorsement of Psycho-Legal Misconceptions Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology DOI: 10.1007/s11896-015-9182-5

further reading
Police and safety professionals fall for myths about people’s behaviour in emergencies
Are the police any better than us at judging the accuracy of eye-witness statements?
Can psychologists tell jurors anything they don’t know already?
Can psychologist and psychiatrist expert witnesses be trusted to know how memory works?

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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