Category: Forensic

More than 50 years on, the murder of Kitty Genovese is still throwing up fresh psychological revelations

KittyGenovese-2By Christian Jarrett

The horrific killing of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in New York in 1964 inspired research into what’s known in social psychology as the Bystander Phenomenon – our increased disinclination to intervene when in the company of others. That’s because early reports told how 38 witnesses to Genovese’s murder did nothing to help. But in fact it’s now clear that several people did intervene. So the tragedy that inspired research into the Bystander Phenomenon is actually a bad example of that real phenomenon.

But it’s not time yet to leave the sad story alone. As psychologist Saul Kassin documents in Perspectives on Psychological Science, hidden in the story in plain sight all these decades is an example of another important psychological principle: the power of false confessions. Moreover, in another twist, details have emerged recently of how a few days after her murder, Genovese’s killer, Winston Moseley, was initially detained by members of the public – ironically, given how the Genovese case inspired research into bystander apathy, these bystanders chose to act.

Continue reading “More than 50 years on, the murder of Kitty Genovese is still throwing up fresh psychological revelations”

“I forgot” may (sometimes) be a credible excuse for breaking the speed limit

Motorcycle Officer Giving Speeding Ticket to MotoristBy Alex Fradera

When someone breaks the speed limit, we tend to explain it away as recklessness, machismo, or impatience. But new research led by Vanessa Bowden at the University of Western Australia, suggests that problems in memory, not temperament, may often be the culprit. According to a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, traffic stops and other interruptions can disrupt our ability to keep track of recent changes to the speed limit. But the research doesn’t entirely let us off the hook: when waiting at a stop, we can reduce these interfering effects by making sure we keep our attention on the road.

Continue reading ““I forgot” may (sometimes) be a credible excuse for breaking the speed limit”

Psychologists are working on a fraud-proof brain scan test of deviant sexual interest

Male patient in medical scanner with red lightsBy Christian Jarrett

If the courts wanted to know if a suspected sex offender was attracted to children, they could ask him or her, or they could ask experts to measure signs of the suspect’s sexual arousal while he or she looked at different images. But a devious suspect would surely lie about their interests, and they could distract themselves to cheat the physical test.

Brain scans offer an alternative strategy: research shows that when we look at images that we find sexually attractive, our brains show distinct patterns of activation. But of course, the same issues of cheating and deliberate distraction could apply.

Unless, that is, you could somehow prevent the suspect from knowing what images they were looking at, by using subliminal stimuli that can’t be seen at a conscious level. Then you could see how their brain responds to different types of image without the suspect even knowing what they were looking at.

This is the essence of a strategy tested in a new paper in Consciousness and Cognition. Martina Wernicke at Asklepios Forensic Psychiatric Hospital of Gottingen and her colleagues have provided a partial proof of principle that it might one day be possible to use subliminally presented images in a brain scanner to provide a fraud-proof test of a person’s sexual interests. It’s a potentially important break-through for crime prevention – given that deviant sexual interest is one of the strongest predictors of future offences – but it also raises important ethical questions.

Continue reading “Psychologists are working on a fraud-proof brain scan test of deviant sexual interest”

Detectives on the toll of investigating child deaths: it only gets harder

Abandoned Teddy-bear lying headless on concrete groundBy Alex Fradera

There has been little research into what it’s like for police detectives to investigate the death of a child. As bluntly stated in official police guidance documents “children are not meant to die”, and coping with these circumstances, especially as a detective and parent, could involve emotional and psychological demands beyond those experienced when investigating adult murders.

For a new explorative study in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, Jason Roach and his colleagues surveyed 99 police detectives from 23 forces across England and Wales: most of them were white and male, and they had conducted investigations into an average of 30 adult murders and 7 unexplained child deaths. Compared to dealing with adult homicides, the detectives said they felt more pressure to solve cases involving children, found them harder to deal with emotionally, and thought more about them after the cases had ended.

Continue reading “Detectives on the toll of investigating child deaths: it only gets harder”

Researchers chucked litter on the streets of New York and Bern to see if anyone would intervene

Trash can in New York CityBy Alex Fradera

To maintain pleasant public spaces requires that we all implicitly agree to certain civil behaviours, like pocketing our chocolate wrappers rather than leaving them strewn on the pavement, or turning the stereo down after eleven. But when these implicit agreements are too frequently ignored they can lose their force entirely, jeopardising the social order. To keep things together, one or more of us need to hold any miscreants to account… but who wants that hassle? A new paper in the journal Rationality and Society explores real-life littering norm enforcers, taking us from the streets of Switzerland to the New York underground.

Continue reading “Researchers chucked litter on the streets of New York and Bern to see if anyone would intervene”

Bad news for passport control: face-matching is harder than we realised

Passport Officer at Airport SecurityBy Alex Fradera

Experiments suggest that telling if two unfamiliar faces are the same or different is no easy task. Such research has sometimes presented participants with full body shots, has more commonly used cropped shots of people’s heads, but almost never placed the faces in a formal context, such as on a photographic ID card. But these are the situations in which face-to-photo matching is most relevant, when a shop assistant squints at a driver’s license before selling alcohol to a twitchy youth, or an emigration official scrutinises passports before their holders pass ports. Moreover, it’s plausible that the task is harder when juggling extra information, something already found in the realm of fingerprint matching, where biographical information can lead to more erroneous matches because it triggers observer prejudices. A new article in Applied Cognitive Psychology confirms these fears, suggesting that our real-world capacity to spot fakes in their natural setting is even worse than imagined.

Continue reading “Bad news for passport control: face-matching is harder than we realised”

Researchers have identified a simple bias that makes forgiveness so hard

Two cupped hands holding a stone with forgive written on itBy Alex Fradera

Tom Tate’s second visit to the German town of Pforzheim was a return to somewhere he hadn’t seen in fifty years. After bailing from a burning plane, he and his RAF squad had landed there, been captured, and his comrades executed by a Hitler Youth group incensed by the bombing the town had suffered. Tate himself had only escaped by moments, and swore never to return to a place that he believed bore only hate against him. But spurred by a magazine article that mentioned an annual service held to commemorate the atrocity, he decided to make the journey. Once there, he found himself welcomed by a population who deeply regretted their actions.

This story opens a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which investigates whether we underestimate how much our persecutors seek forgiveness. Relevant here is classic research that suggests a difference of perspective in how we judge people’s actions – we see our own actions as being strongly influenced by the situation we’re in, but when judging other another person’s actions we seem him or her as more directly responsible (sometimes described as the actor-observer bias). Researchers Gabrielle Adams and M. Ena Inesi thought that the same bias might be relevant to when one person harms another – that victims will typically assume the perpetrator intended his or her actions and will therefore remain unrepentant. Continue reading “Researchers have identified a simple bias that makes forgiveness so hard”

Training men to judge women’s sexual interest more accurately

Businessman Flirting Businesswoman
Researchers may have found a new way to combat sexual aggression

By Christian Jarrett

“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”  Donald Trump, 2016 Republican Party nominee for US president, speaking in 2005 (full transcript).

The causes of sexual aggression are many, but anecdotal evidence (for example, as implied in the above quote), and research-based evidence, suggests that at least part of it has to do with when men overestimate women’s levels of sexual interest. A new study in the Psychology of Violence finds that men with a history of sexual aggression are especially likely to make this kind of misjudgment, in part because they focus on inappropriate cues, such as a woman’s attractiveness, rather than on her actual emotions. But promisingly, the research also suggests that it’s possible, through practice, to reduce this bias. This is an important finding considering previous research has shown that information-based educational programmes designed to reduce sexual aggression (through challenging rape myths, for example) are relatively ineffective. Continue reading “Training men to judge women’s sexual interest more accurately”

The Metropolitan Police’s elite super-recognisers are the real deal

Back view of metropolitan police officerBy Alex Fradera

Identifying people from video and photographs is a core task for a modern police force, and London – which led the world in implementing and using CCTV – has attempted to meet this need by developing a pool of 140 “police identifiers” made up of Metropolitan Police officers with a strong track record of making IDs from photographs. But who are these individuals? Are they really super-recognisers as the Met has claimed? True super-recognisers are usually identified by formal tests and their dramatic ability to recognise human faces outstrips typical performance to the same extent that many prosopagnosics (people with face-blindness) lag behind. Or, in identifying so many suspects, did the police identifiers just catch a string of lucky breaks? Addressing this through a battery of neuropsychological tests, Josh Davis and his UK-university collaborators scrutinise the scrutinisers in a new paper in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Continue reading “The Metropolitan Police’s elite super-recognisers are the real deal”

New power in the hands of the chronically powerless can be toxic

Toxic Chemical

In the 1970s, feminist theorists began to put forward what was then a controversial claim: that sexual aggression is essentially about power. This idea was important enough to launch experimental research, much of which has supported the claim – for instance, priming some men with a sense of power leads them to say they would be more prepared to coerce sex, and encourages men and women alike to believe a subordinate desired them sexually. However other research has suggested the opposite: that aggression is more likely when perpetrators feel less powerful, including in domestic violence and specifically sexual aggression contexts.

To make sense of these seemingly contradictory findings, researchers from Emory and Stanford universities have looked at power more carefully. Their work, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that a person’s experience of power in the past and their power right now in the current situation are distinct factors, and how they combine is key. Continue reading “New power in the hands of the chronically powerless can be toxic”