Gruesome Descriptions Can Make Crimes Seem Worse — But Judges And Lawyers Are Immune To This Bias

By Matthew Warren

We often like to think of ourselves as impartial decision-makers — but of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Our day-to-day thoughts and behaviours are biased in all kinds of ways. But is the same true for people in the legal profession, which prides itself on its supposed objectivity and fairness?

According to a new study in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, judges and lawyers may be immune to at least some of the biases that affect the rest of us. In particular, their judgements seem less prone to the biasing effects of emotive language.

Sandra Baez from Universidad de los Andes in Colombia and colleagues recruited 45 judges, 60 attorneys, and 64 control participants with no experience in law. All participants read a series of 24 scenarios in which someone inflicts harm on a victim, causing damage to property, injury, or death. In half of the scenarios the harm was accidental (e.g. the protagonist kills someone with his car after his brakes fail) and in half it was intentional (e.g. the protagonist speeds up to kill someone after seeing them on the road).

Half of the participants were given descriptions in plain language, in which the basic facts were laid out. In the car scenario, for example, they were told that the victim lies on the ground and eventually dies. But the other half were given gruesome descriptions, with graphic details about what exactly happened to the victim as they died.

After reading each scenario, the participants rated the morality of the protagonist’s actions, the severity of harm caused to the victim, and the amount of punishment they felt that the protagonist deserved.

Overall, participants rated intentional harms as morally worse than accidental ones. But the language used was also important. Control participants who read scenarios framed in gruesome language rated them as more morally wrong that those who read plain language. For judges and attorneys, however, the kind of language used didn’t make a difference. This suggests that emotional language can bias people towards making more severe judgments, at least when it comes to judging morality. But legal professionals seem to be immune to this bias.

In a subset of participants, the authors also found that changes in heart rate variability — a physiological measure of emotional arousal — were related to people’s moral judgement ratings when reading gruesome descriptions. But, again, this was only true for control participants. So it seems that gruesome language might provoke emotional physiological reactions which lay people use to guide their moral judgements, but which legal professionals have learned to ignore.

All three groups of participants also rated intentional harms as more severe, and assigned harsher punishments for them, than those caused by accident. But judges and attorneys rated accidental harms as less severe and assigned a less harsh punishment for them than did controls. These results imply that those in the legal profession may also be better able to focus on a perpetrator’s intentions when harms are caused accidentally, and so take this into account when making decisions about punishment.

It’s not all good news: lawyers and judges still rated harms as more severe when caused on purpose than by accident, even though the “objective” amount of harm — e.g. damage to property — was exactly the same in both conditions. The authors say that this is an example of the “harm magnification effect”, in which people overestimate harms that are caused intentionally. This could lead to inflated legal sentences in some cases, they add.

And of course, we already know judges are prone to other biases: they may impose stricter punishments on BAME defendants, for instance, and can be swayed by neuroscientific explanations of a defendant’s behaviour. Still, it seems that legal professionals’ training and expertise mitigates at least some human biases in decision-making.

The impact of legal expertise on moral decision-making biases

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest