Not all confessions are created equal. In a criminal justice setting, some admissions of guilt are both sincere and corroborated — but others are not, having been coerced, given by vulnerable or underage defendants, or unreliably reported secondhand. Yet mock jury trials have shown that lay people often tend to take a confession at face value, handing down a guilty verdict without considering other potential evidence.
It’s with this in mind that Fabiana Alceste from City University of New York and colleagues question just how well people really understand the existing body of evidence on reliable, admissible confessions in a new paper in Applied Cognitive Psychology. The answer to that question could have ramifications not only for those on juries but also for the people they’re deciding whether to convict.
Our memories are not always reliable. But sometimes they’re rich, textured and vivid — even if they didn’t happen. Research has suggested false memories often have the descriptive, multisensory elements of real memories, a fact that obviously poses both interesting questions about memory itself and difficulties for those relying on eyewitness encounters for evidence.
But beyond the question of how people remember is another quandary: are we, as observers, able to tell whether someone’s memory is true or false? It’s a question tackled by UCL’s Julia Shaw in a new study published in Frontiers in Psychology — and she finds that not only are we susceptible to having memories planted, we’re not very good at working out when someone else’s memory is false either.
Stress has complicated effects on our memories. Whereas some studies have found that we are better at remembering events that occurred during stressful situations, such as while watching disturbing videos, others have shown that stress impairs memory. Now a study published in Brain and Cognition suggests that stress doesn’t influence the strength of our emotional memories at all. Instead, the researchers claim, it is the fidelity of those memories – how distinct and precise they are – that changes when we go through stressful experiences.
During major bouts of anger or fear, people can end up taking extreme and sometimes violent actions. But they often say that, in the moment, they didn’t feel responsible for those actions – they “lost control” or “saw red”. In the UK, under certain circumstances, a person accused of murder can even claim that this “loss of control” led to them killing their victim. If successful, this defence can reduce charges to manslaughter.
Now the first study of its kind suggests that there is some truth to these claims. Participants put into a fearful or angry state really do seem to have a reduced sense of agency, according to a paper published recently in Experimental Brain Research, raising questions about the accountability of people going through extreme emotions.
Claims that violent video games lead to aggression have been around since the days of Space Invaders. When young people are exposed to violent media, the theory goes, their aggressive thoughts become more prominent, leading them to commit acts of violence. But while several studies have found results that seem to back up this idea, the evidence is far from unequivocal.
Now a study published in Royal Society Open Sciencehas failed to find any association between the time spent playing violent video games and aggressive behaviour, adding to a growing body of literature that suggests that such a link has been overstated – or may not exist at all.
The profession of “criminal profiler” is one shrouded in secrecy, even giving off a hint of danger. Yet when the American psychiatrist James A. Brussel began profiling a particular suspect in the 1950s, law enforcement officers were not entirely inclined to trust him. However, it turned out Brussel accurately defined the suspect’s height, clothing and even religion. This spectacular success was the beginning of the profession of the profiler. The FBI formed its Behavioral Science Unit in 1974 to study serial predators. Since then, the art and craft of criminal profiling have become the subject of numerous books, TV shows and iconic films such as The Silence of the Lambs. Criminal profilers are not, however, just characters created to make interesting films and books – in the real world the accuracy of their expert opinions is often key to protecting the safety and lives of others.
Can we say, after the passage of 40 years since the job of offender profiling (OP) was established, that this profession is a craft worthy of trust, one whose practitioners make use of tried and tested tools, or rather would it be more accurate to describe it as an art-form grounded in intuition that supplies us with foggy, uncertain predictions? Answers to these questions are given by Bryanna Fox from the University of South Florida and David P. Farrington from the University of Cambridge in the December edition of Psychological Bulletin, where they present a systematic review and meta-analysis of 426 publications on OP from 1976 through 2016.
One eyewitness to a robbery reports that the culprit was a male in his 40s with brown hair, wearing a light-coloured T-shirt. Another describes a blond man in his early 30s wearing a denim shirt. If you’re a police officer investigating the crime, whose memory do you trust?
Identifying which of two apparently credible but conflicting eye-witness statements to trust is a big problem for law enforcement agencies (as is deciding, in the case of a witness who has no incentive to lie, which among their memories are accurate). Now a new paper, reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, provides initial evidence for a new, objectively verifiable method for doing this. This work has, as the researchers write, “potentially far-reaching significance, not the least in the legal context.”
The fallibility of eye-witness memory has been well-documented by psychologists, including how alcohol intoxication undermines witness accuracy still further. In fact, psychological research into the foibles of human memory and the implications this has for legal proceedings is arguably one of the best examples of the discipline making a practical contribution to everyday life.
And yet, as Annelies Vredeveldt at VU University Amsterdam and her team explain in their new paper in Applied Cognitive Psychology, there is a striking gap in the literature: “despite the frequency with which people use cannabis, there is almost no research examining its effects on eye-witness memory.”
Around the world, more people than ever are locked up in prisons – estimated to be in excess of 11 million people, up by almost 20 per cent since the turn of the millennium (pdf). According to a recent House of Commons Briefing Paper the rate of increase is even higher than this in the UK where prison populations are at a record high. Many of these incarcerated individuals have intensifying mental health needs – for instance, the same briefing paper reports that UK rates of self-harm in prisoners were 25 per cent higher in 2015 than in 2014. Ahead of this week’s meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Psychology on the topic of Mental Health in the Criminal Justice System, here we provide a digest of research into the mental health of prisoners.
Psychology can help people one person at a time, but it also holds the promise of changing society at a mass scale, through campaigns to change attitudes and behaviour. One such endeavour is the development of programmes to reduce the rates of sexual assault of women on university campuses. But in a literature review in Aggression and Violent Behavior, researchers from the University of California make the case that such programmes may not just be ineffective, but counterproductive.