Although criminal investigation has been transformed through technological developments in DNA, phone tracking, and online data, the way a detective works through a crime has remained much the same. The first suspect is often the true perpetrator, but not always, and snowballing biases continue to lead to miscarriages of justice. Proficient detectives need the ability to generate and evaluate different explanations and keep an open mind. New research in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology investigates whether it’s possible to use established tests of reasoning ability to identify who has the skills necessary for thinking this way.
Historically, the kind of false memories induced in volunteers by psychologists have been relatively mundane. For example, a seminal study used leading questions and the encouragement to confabulate, to apparently implant in participants the memory of getting lost in a shopping mall as a child. This reliance on mundane false memories has been problematic for experts who believe that false memories have critical real world consequence, from criminal trials involving false murder confessions, to memories of child abuse “recovered” during therapy using controversial techniques.
The discrepancy between psychologists’ lab results and their real world claims vanished abruptly in 2015 when Julia Shaw (based then at the University of Bedfordshire) and Stephen Porter (University of British Columbia) shocked the memory research community with their staggering finding that, over several interview sessions, and by using false accounts purportedly from the participants’ own caregivers, they had successfully implanted false memories of having committed a crime as a teenager in 70 per cent of their participants, ranging from theft to assault with a weapon. But now other experts have raised doubts about these claims.
The desire to catch people in a lie has led to the development of techniques that are meant to detect the physical markers of dishonesty – from the polygraph to brain scans. However, these methods are often foundwanting. The insights of cognitive psychologists have arguably fared better, based on the idea that lying is more mentally demanding than telling the truth – real knowledge is automatically called to mind when we are questioned, and this needs to be inhibited before we answer, leading to slower responses. Unfortunately new research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied seems to pour cold water on the idea of using these subtle reaction-time differences to develop objective (and cheap) measures to get at the truth. The findings suggest that all it takes to render this cognitive approach ineffective is a prepared false alibi.
What lies at the dark heart of psychopathy? Is it a lack or emotion and empathy, a willingness to manipulate others – or, perhaps, a failure to take responsibility for misdeeds? All of these traits, and many more, are viewed as aspects of a psychopathic personality. But there’s still a debate among experts about which of these are core, and which less important.
Now a new study of 7,450 criminal offenders in the US and the Netherlands, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, has identified what the researchers believe are the psychopath’s most “central” traits . But while there were striking similarities in the data from the two countries, there were also intriguing differences. This raises the question: does the meaning of the term “psychopath” vary between cultures?
Any context that encourages us to focus on a person’s body, more than their mind, is said to lead to objectification, such as when, in a previous era, a Formula One fan looked upon an attractive “grid girl” dressed in revealing clothes.
Perhaps the most serious concern about objectification is that it can lead us to disregard the rights and experiences of the objectified person. For instance, past research has shown that we’re more inclined to blame a rape victim depicted in a bikini, and more willing to (hypothetically) administer painful tablets to men and women shown wearing swim wear, rather than fully clothed.
Now a study in Cortex has taken things further by showing that volunteers’ empathy-related brain activity was diminished when they saw an objectified woman suffering social rejection, as compared with a woman who wasn’t objectified.
Around the world, neuroscience evidence is being introduced into courtrooms at an increasing rate, including findings from behavioural genetics. Specifically, some legal teams for the defence have been allowed to argue that the defendant has a low activity version of the MAOA gene, which codes for an enzyme that regulates the levels of several neurotransmitters. In combination with experiencing child abuse or maltreatment, having this low activity gene has been linked with increased impulsivity, including aggression. Defense lawyers presumably hope that jurors will interpret this as meaning the defendant was less culpable for their violent crime. However, before now, little research has examined how jurors will treat this evidence.
For a new study in Behavioral Sciences and the Law, Natalie Gordon and Edie Greene presented 600 mock jurors (half were students, half were from the wider community) with a detailed trial summary based on a real US murder trial in which the defendant, already in jail for an earlier crime, had murdered his cell-mate. The jurors’ task was to decide whether he should face the death penalty.
It sounds like a paradox – the idea that participating in aggressive sport can make people less aggressive. Yet this belief forms a core basis of many martial arts dating back thousands of years, and many famous practitioners (real and fictional) have preached the importance of self control.
Legendary martial artist Bruce Lee once noted that “emotion can be the enemy. If you give into your emotion, you lose yourself”. Or as Mr Miyagi said in The Karate Kid the “lesson is not just karate only, the lesson is for whole life”.
Previous research has demonstrated that this may well be the case, as participating in martial arts helps improve concentration and self-awareness, self-esteem, emotional stability and self-regulation.
But is it really true that martial arts also reduces aggression outside the dojo? Can participating in traditionally violent sports prove cathartic, helping young people develop self-discipline and in turn be less violent away from the sport? Writing in the journal of Aggression and Violent Behaviour researchers from Israel and America report their findings from the first meta-analysis on the impact of martial arts on violent behaviours in children and teenagers.
In a ranking of genuinely important YouTube videos to have gone viral, this one (see above) from 2014 places high: it shows over 100 instances of harassment endured by a woman wearing a hidden camera as she walked around New York City for ten hours, including comments, stares, winks and whistles.
The video was posted in 2014 by the domestic violence activist group Hollaback! to highlight the prevalence of this kind of behaviour. As individual testimony, it was powerful. But, critics could argue, it was just one woman, on just one day. This is an argument they cannot use about the results of a new study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, which the researchers, led by Elise Holland at the University of Melbourne in Australia, believe is the first to capture just how common sexual harassment and “objectification” is in the daily lives of young women – and to show the possible impact on how women think about themselves.
A team of US researchers led by Lara Stemple at the UCLA School of Law has analysed data from several large federal crime victimisation surveys and they say their findings show that sexual offences by women against male and female victims are surprisingly common. Writing in Aggression and Violent Behaviour the researchers stress that they are in no way intending to minimise the human cost of sexual violence perpetrated by men. But they say their results are “sufficiently robust so as to compel a rethinking of long-held stereotypes about sexual victimisation and gender”.
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.