Psychology Weekends: Three New Studies You May Want to Read

This time around, I decided to do something shorter and more focused than last week’s psychology post. Today, I decided to peruse the latest volume of Law & Human Behavior to see what interesting studies have recently hit the press. Below, I’ll do a quick review of three that caught my eye

1. “Postincident Conferring by Law Enforcement Officers: Determining the Impact of Team Discussions on Statement Content, Accuracy, and Officer Beliefs.”

This article by Lorraine Hope and Joanne Fraser (University of Portsmouth), and Fiona Gabbert (University of Abertay) presents work in which the authors investigated police discussing an incident with each other prior to writing up their official police reports. Essentially, the authors were interested in determining what effects it might have on police to “get their stories straight” (my phrasing, not theirs) before writing up an account.

To do that, the authors recruited right around 300 police officers and paired them up into groups of six officers on average. The groups were randomly assigned into “conferring permitted” or “conferring not permitted” and then made to respond to a mock incident. Afterward, they either had to write up what happened and what actions they took without any discussion amongst colleagues or they were allowed to talk with their teammates before drawing up reports. All mock incidents were filmed so that the officers’ written statements could be accuracy-checked.

The results?

Interestingly, there was no evidence of a main effect for either improved or decreased accuracy when officers were allowed to confer with each other before writing up reports. BUT, far more interesting is that officers who were allowed to chat with their teammates felt more confident about their accuracy.

The take-home?

As I see it, a big take-home point is this. Police who have had a chance to “get their stories straight” post-incident will likely present as more sure of themselves. That could be a double edged sword at trial. If the officer’s version of events is effectively contradicted by other evidence then the credibility of the officer may be called into question. Of course, it might also make the jurors feel more likely to believe the officer. In much the same way, an officer who is less sure may have a lower overall effect on the jury’s willingness to believe him but simultaneously look more human and less biased for acknowledging the shortcomings of memory.

Full Citation:

Hope, L., Gabbert, F., & Fraser, J. (2013). Postincident Conferring by Law Enforcement Officers: Determining the Impact of Team Discussion on Statement Content, Accuracy, and Officer Beliefs. Law and Human Behavior, 37, 117-127.

2. “False Alibi Corroboration: Witnesses Lie for Suspects Who Seem Innocent, Whether They Like Them or Not.”

This is an interesting piece of research. The authors wanted “[t]o test the commonly held assumption that individuals who share a personal relationship are more likely to lie for one another than are strangers.”

Here’s how the study was set up: in a 2 x 2 design, participants got assigned to either a “friendship-enhancing” or “stranger-maintaining” condition. They were placed in a room with a confederate who would either worked with them to complete a group project or not. Next, the confederate left the room and either returned with some money or empty-handed to create either  “apparent theft” or “no apparent theft” conditions.

The next stage was interrogation. Both the confederates and participants were questioned by an experimenter. At this point, the confederate denied ever leaving the testing room and claimed being with the participant the whole time. The experimenter split the confederate and participant up and asked the participant if that statement was true.

The results?

The participants would lie. They would back up the confederate’s false statement about never leaving the room. However, they were more likely to lie when there was no presence of evidence. That is, when the confederate returned to the testing room without any money. In the instances where the confederate returned to the room with money, participants were less often willing to lie and cover for the confederate.

Particularly noteworthy though: no evidence was found that “friendship-enhancing” or “stranger-maintaining” had any effect on the likelihood of a participant lying. As the authors of the study say it, “it would seem that people tend to underestimate how likely it is that strangers, or individuals sharing distant social relationships, would lie for one another.”

The take-home?

I find this study encouraging. It seems to provide evidence that people are less concerned about whether they like you than if there is evidence against you. Of course, absence of proof isn’t proof of absence. The authors here simply didn’t find any statistically significant difference between “friendship-enhancing” and “stranger-maintaining” when evaluating likelihood of lying. This doesn’t prove there isn’t an effect. It’s just lack of any hard evidence. Perhaps the bigger take-home is that we’re fairly willing to cover for strangers who are accused. There must be something to this…that we’re willing to stick up for each other by potentially tarnishing our own reputation for truthfulness. Interesting indeed.

Full Citation:

Marion, S.B. & Burke, T. M., (2013). Alibi Corroboration: Witnesses Lie for Suspects Who Seem Innocent, Whether They Like Them or Not. Law and Human Behavior, 37, 136-143.

3. “Callous-Unemotional Traits Robustly Predict Future Criminal Offending in Young Men.”

This study is not necessarily unintuitive and I won’t spend too much time on it. I thought it worth pointing out because it provides further (and perhaps better) empirical support for the general notion that certain traits in adults tend to predict likelihood to commit crimes. Specifically, the traits include: lack of empathy, deficient guilt/remorse, and shallow affect.

The authors point out that prior research examining this topic have not necessarily separated the predictive effect of such personality traits from other intermediary variables such as prior offense records, association with delinquent individuals, etc… This study sought to isolate potentially confounding variables that were driving likelihood to commit crime and see if Callous-Unemotional (CU) traits had predictive value in and of themselves.

In order to do this, the authors assessed participants in their homes. They administered self-report scales measuring various CU traits and also gathered information on the participants’ arrest records, convictions, alcohol/substance use, and demographic information (education, employment, marital status, ethnicity, etc…). The authors followed up on each participant (the average follow-up period was 3.5 years) to see what if any criminal offending the participants had engaged in. The authors built a logistic regression model to determine the effect of CU measures and other variables on likelihood to offend.

The result?

Self-reported CU factors are a “robust” predictor of a person’s likelihood to offend and held their predictive power even after other “well-established risk factors” had been controlled for in the regression model. The authors found that CU traits predicted arrests and being charged with crimes. However, authors did not find that any one particular CU trait (e.g. lack of empathy) had predictive power on its own.

The take-home?

I don’t see it as all that suprising that people whose personality traits don’t align with the status quo would frequently be at odds with the law. A person who doesn’t place the same value on your right to property or your right to be left alone might well do things that cause him trouble with the law. What I found worth pondering is that no one trait is predictive. In other words, you need to have some critical mass of CU traits. The wider implications of that could be scary. Might employers, insurers, or the government start evaluating people on their CU traits and trying to predict who will offend before it happens in a Minority Report type fashion? And even more fundamentally, does this observed effect indicate a health issue we need to address? Would it be arrogant to label people scoring high on these CU predictors as ‘unhelathy’ or ‘ill’? Those are larger questions perhaps to be answered another time.

Full Citation:

Kahn, R.E., Byrd, A.L., & Pardini, D.A. (2013). Callous-Unemotional Traits Robustly Predict Future Criminal Offending in Young Men. Law and Human Behavior, 37, 87-97.

4. Conclusion

Well that’s it folks. I just wanted to take a glimpse of new work and leave you with some food for thought and material to digest should you so choose. Until next time…

-Zachary Cloud


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