Category: Forensic

Research into the mental health of prisoners, digested

GettyImages-504701778.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

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.

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New literature review warns that current sexual assault interventions might actually increase offending among high-risk men

GettyImages-178019463.jpgBy Alex Fradera

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.

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Can a reasoning test predict who will make a good detective?

GettyImages-118096569.jpgBy Alex Fradera

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.

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Psychologists clash over how easy it is to implant false memories of committing a crime

By guest blogger Simon Oxenham

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.

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Cognitive approach to lie detection rendered useless by made-up alibi

GettyImages-531979628.jpgBy Alex Fradera

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 found wanting. 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.

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Important differences uncovered between US and Dutch psychopaths

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The researchers performed a “network analysis” on offenders’ scores on a psychopathy questionnaire. From Verschuere et al 2018

By Emma Young

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?

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Reduced neural empathy for women wearing revealing clothes

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The participants watched women being rejected in a ball-passing game (the black blocks over their eyes did not appear in the actual study); from Cogoni et al 2018

By Christian Jarrett

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.

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Mock jury study – will behavioral genetic evidence get defendants off the hook?

3D grunge style brain image on a DNA strands backgroundBy Christian Jarrett

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.

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The art of not fighting: Martial arts reduce child and teen aggression

giphyBy guest blogger Bradley Busch

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.

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For one week these women recorded all the times they were objectified sexually

By Emma Young

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.

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