Category Archives: Other Interests

A catch-all for articles that don’t really have much to do with criminal law and/or jury research.

“Stop & Search” in the UK

Quickly passing along a notable video and article from The Guardian. For those of us who followed the NYPD Stop & Frisk cases, this will be of particular interest. It’s a look at the equivalent being used by Metropolitan Police in London.

The video runs around 12:00 min but is worth watching.

Stop and search: police battle for control of London’s streets – video

Accompanying article

-Zachary Cloud

File Under “It’s About Time”: SDNY Judge Finds Unconstitutional NYPD’s “Stop & Frisk”

I’m on vacation, spending much of my time in places with no cell phone service and doing a lot of work with my hands. It’s been great. But I’m popping in to post about what has been a long time coming. Today, Judge Scheindlin handed down two opinions in the class action suit against the New York Police Department—she has ruled the NYPD’s policy of stopping and frisking people violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendmet because of the practice’s disparate impact on racial minorities.

I’ve previously expressed my dismay that the Stop & Frisk program was being carried and—and especially that it was being praised by city officials. You can find the two opinions Judge Scheindlin issued on the Southern District for New York’s webpage. They’re collectively quite long but nevertheless worth a read. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

I emphasize at the outset, as I have throughout the litigation, that this case is not about the effectiveness of stop and frisk in deterring or combating crime. This Court’s mandate is solely to judge the constitutionality of police behavior, not its effectiveness as a law enforcement tool. Many police practices may be useful for fighting crime — preventive detention or coerced confessions, for example — but because they are unconstitutional they cannot be used, no matter how effective. “The enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table.”

I love it! I will probably be sitting down in the next few days to write up a post about the continual revelations regarding NSA data collection/inspection and perhaps a post about encryption. Since I learned of the telephony metadata, PRISM, and attendant surveillance programs, I have made it a major hobby to get up to speed on everything related to encryption and I have some observations you might find worthwhile. Until the next post…

-Zachary Cloud

Psychology Weekends: Ways Police Trick You Into Giving Up Your Rights

I want to do something different this week. The past couple of weekends, I’ve looked at current or recent research and critiqued it. I’ve also examined empirical bases for a theory or two  but this time around, I am going to forego getting technical or merely doing a lit review of sorts. Instead, I want to write about some observations about tactics the police in America often use to get people to give up their rights.

We need to get a couple of things straight right up front. First, I’m not a cop and never have been. The things I’m saying here aren’t based on some insider, I-learned-this-in-a-training-program set of knowledge. I say that because I don’t want you to think that there’s necessarily some uniform set of skills new cops are being trained on or that all of these little tricks are even intentional. Some police may use certain techniques without realizing or meaning to. The things I share here are derived from personal observations, watching lots of police footage from shows like COPS and Youtube clips of police-citizen encounters, interactions with police that friends and family have had, and from what clients have relayed to me during my past work experiences.

The other thing that we need to get straight is that I’m not giving you legal advice. No doubt, I’m gonna lay a tiny bit of federal constitutional law down as a foundation here and there so I can illustrate my points. That does not mean that this is the be-all, end-all regarding your rights. Some states provide protections above and beyond the minimum federal constitutional requirements. I may illustrate points with some hypothetical here but reading my post won’t teach you what you need to know about the law and you shouldn’t rely on what I might explain because each case is different. Want legal advice? Look elsewhere.

On the other hand, if what you want are some insights into the psychology of the police-citizen encounter, do read on…

1. Police Stops of Pedestrians

I could have jumped right to something like interrogations, which is fun and intense but not very familiar for must of us. Something that is familiar is the general police encounter. As we go about our day, we might come across police in a variety of places. In the coffee shop, directing traffic, standing guard outside of a incident scene, etc… For the most part, we all go about our separate ways and nobody’s bothered.

But sometimes police may want to talk to you. And they may approach you. And here’s where the first tactic I see starts to come into play. As a general rule, there are three types of police encounters you can have: (1) consensual ones, (2) investigatory stops (aka Terry stops), and (3) arrests. See, e.g., United States v. Ford, 548 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 2008). A police officer is certainly allowed to approach you and ask you questions…so what?

A hypo to illustrate how this works: Jane is walking along in a rough part of town. A police officer sees her and has a hunch that she might be possessing some sort of drug. He walks up to her and says “Hang on, where are you headed? What are you doing here?”

This is not an investigatory stop. It’s not an arrest. Jane isn’t being detained and she certainly doesn’t have to answer the police officer if she doesn’t want to. This is an officer’s request for a consensual conversation. She doesn’t have to agree to it…but I’ll almost guarantee you that she will…and that you would too if you were in the same situation. What’s going on here is simple. The officer has a mere hunch that Jane might be doing something illegal but he doesn’t have the amount of suspicion required to actually conduct an investigatory stop nor does he have a basis to search. So, what he’s going to do is try to get to his goal by an alternate route.

How does he do that? A couple tricks are working together. For starters, he’s put her on the defensive by asking her what she’s doing there. This conjures up a desire to explain that we just naturally have. It’s instinctive. When someone accuses you and you’re not doing something wrong, you feel the need to explain. And, when someone accuses you and you are doing something wrong, you will still try to explain. You might well get defensive. This is a chess match of sorts because if Jane starts to act odd or evasive, that might give rise to specific articulable facts that could allow for detention.

2. Stop and Frisk

This point ties nicely to my first one above. I’ve read a lot lately about the NYPD Stop and Frisk policy as well as some equivalent policy in England. I could go off on some long tangent about this topic because I think it’s essentially government-endorsed rights violations. More troubling still is that many in the general public seem to be okay with this…which perhaps explains why there hasn’t been more of an outcry about the NSA’s data collection.

See, I’m digressing.

First of all, a couple of basic legal principals. Police cannot randomly pat people down because they feel like it or have a hunch that someone is breaking the law. I really don’t want to go off on a tangent here but I just have to make sure we’re all up on what the law actually allows. The foundation was set down in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). A police officer may only conduct a protective frisk (colloquially, a Terry frisk) when he or she has specific articulable facts that suggest the person may pose a danger to the officer or others nearby. In theory, the NYPD policy purports to conduct stops only when these legal criteria are met. In practice, there’s plenty of reason to doubt that. This troubling video gives a first-hand look at what I mean.

However, it gives me a segue to explain another tactic police will use. Consider this hypo: John is walking down the street quickly when an officer sees him and recognizes him from a wanted poster. He detains John and runs a database check, which reveals that there are no outstanding warrants for John’s arrest. He asks John “you don’t have anything illegal on you do you?” John, looking nervous, replies “No officer.” The officer replies, “you know, it’ll be a lot better for you if you’re honest with me. If I’m gonna find something on you, you should let me know now.”

Okay, let’s do a play by play here. The initial stop is valid and the officer may detain John. He has reasonable suspicion that John is wanted and he can stop him temporarily to do a warrant check. So far so good. The officer then learns that John’s in the clear—he doesn’t have any outstanding warrants. This is where the stop should end but it doesn’t…and it won’t. The officer doesn’t have the legal authority to pat down John unless there’s some specific, observable facts that could point to John posing a safety risk. Because the officer can’t just pat him down, he uses a clever trick to try and work around that.

The officer is playing on what he perceives to be a fear of getting caught. He offers what seems to be a solution (come clean now or it’ll be worse for you). Problem is, this is illusory. If John admits to having drugs or something illegal on his person, he’ll get arrested and searched and he’ll be charged. How can admitting to anything help?

This is an instance where taking a moment or two to think logically about the situation shows how silly “owning up” for the sake of leniency is. It also requires me to explain a little bit about the mechanics of a criminal case. Let’s suppose John gets illegally searched and busted for having drugs. He’s said nothing despite the officer’s pressure on him to do so. He gets arrested and charged. Eventually, his attorney will fight the stop and has a fighting chance at getting the case dismissed. On the other hand, if John admits possession, he’ll get arrested and the search incident to lawful arrest will turn up that same contraband. He’ll get charged just like when he kept silent but now he has no basis to suppress the evidence. Maybe a prosecutor would give some leniency on his willingness to admit responsibility to the cops but that’s like reading a crystal ball. The police don’t get to deicde what sort of plea bargains to offer, they can’t make enforceable promises of leniency, and ultimately don’t control how the criminal case will get disposed. John was better off keeping his mouth shut.

3. Automobile Stops

My explanation above applies equally well to traffic stops. Another thing that often happens is that police will work hard to get consent.

For example, Mary gets pulled over by a cop for speeding. During the stop, her eyes appear a little blood shot but there is no evidence of alcohol or drugs in the officer’s line of sight. He asks here, “you haven’t been drinking or doing drugs, right?” Mary says, “No.” The cop responds, “you don’t have any drugs with you, do you?” Mary again says no. Now, the cop responds, “then you won’t mind if I look in the trunk…”

This example is another obvious tactic. You’ve heard it  plenty of times before, I’m sure and it could properly be restated “if you have nothing to hide then you shouldn’t mind…” However, this misses the point in a couple of ways. It assumes that innocent people won’t mind giving up their privacy to prove their innocence when, in reality, they shouldn’t have to prove anything because everyone is presumed innocent under the law until proved otherwise. So, to that extent, it plays on our tendency to feel the need to explain and defend ourselves in the face of accusations.

More fundamentally though, this sort of logic should always be a red flag. Police usually do what they lawfully can. In other words, if the law allows them to search your car or home they will just do it rather than asking your permission. A detective with a search warrant won’t ask you if he can search, he will show you the warrant then do it. Similarly, a police officer who actually has the right to search your car (e.g. a drug dog alerts to the presence of narcotics) won’t ask you for permission. He’ll just search.

4. Interrogations

I thought I’d save the best for last here. In my previous examples, I pointed to situations that fall short of arrest. Things change when you’re arrested. You are in “custody” for purposes of Miranda, which means that the stakes are higher for everyone involved. Police think they have probable cause to believe you committed a crime. They want to question you and thus begins a litany of little tricks designed to get you talking.

The first trick is getting you to waive Miranda. As a primary point, you should know that a failure to Mirandize a suspect doesn’t mean a case must get dismissed or that statements can’t be used in any way at all. To the contrary, it has the very limited effect of precluding a prosecutor from introducing your statements in their main “case-in-chief” against you.

Anyway, back to the psychology at play. Police want you to talk and they will often present you with Miranda waiver forms. They’ll go through it as routine and present it to you like it’s paperwork that has to get filed out and you’re presumably going to sign it. If you do, you’re probably without recourse. By treating it like signing the form is standard procedure, the police minimize the significance of what they’re asking and what you’re giving up.

And that’s just the start of things.

When it comes down to the actual substance of an interrogation, police often use what’s known as the Reid Technique. Named after its ‘inventor,’ the technique proposes the following systematic steps to eliciting a confession:

  • Begin with directly confronting the suspect
  • Next, shift blame from the suspect to the circumstances surrounding the incident
  • Discourage the suspect from denying guilt
  • Reinforce your sincerity to make the suspect more receptive to talking
  • Provide the suspect with alternative questions or choices for what happened, one more socially acceptable than the other
  • Get the suspect to repeat an admission of guilt
  • Document the confession

These steps are more carefully and intentionally deployed than some of the others but you’re less likely to encounter them in day to day life. Moreover, there’s a lot more written on the psychological methods used in interrogation settings than other types of police encounters so I won’t spend as much time here. What I will add, however, is that the interrogation feature still shares an important quality with my second topic above. Namely, the indication that admissions will benefit you is illusory and doesn’t make logical sense. If the police have a strong enough case against you to arrest you, it doesn’t make much sense to help them out. Giving a confession may take a case from circumstantial to rock solid. It might just sink the ship and ruin any defense you could have.

4. Concluding Remarks

This isn’t an exhaustive list or empirle study. I might add to this list in a later post if I want to. It’s worth pointing out again that some of these techniques may not even be conscious. That is, officers may be doing them without any calculated desire to wage psychological warfare on you. The point to all of this is that it never hurts to be a critical thinker. You have rights and the pressures that police exhibit in situations such as the examples above can tend to make you stop acting logically. Don’t be too quick to throw rational judgment out the window. It’s probably most important in these sorts of scenarios. After all, they’re your rights…you should be making the informed decision about whether or not to waive them.

-Zachary Cloud

Psychology Weekends: Ingroup Effects on Sentencing

Last week, I noted that I went on a hunt for interesting studies. One of the ones I found is an interesting look at sentencing. Specifically, do people sentence members of their ‘ingroup’ more harshly than outgroup members?

A couple thoughts up front before I dive into the research. First, this is a piece that has some definite, real-world implications. People get sentenced every day in courts across this country. For the vast majority, the sentence imposed is by a judge though, more broadly, prosecutors plea deal recommendations also play a significant role. Second, I think this study has a particularly limiting component reducing external validity. It, like so much other research that psychologists do, relied upon college students. I think that such reliance could be particularly problematic in the realm of sentencing, where it’s essentially guaranteed that the person passing judgment will be older—and usually much older—than college aged people. Generational effects can be powerful and likely play a role here that the current study was simply unable to identify.

That said, let’s take a look at the research. German researchers Mario Gollwitzer and Livia Kelle (2010) investigated how members of a group punished repeat offenders considered to be a part of the ingroup. In their study, they hypothesized that (1) people would punish a repeat ingroup offender more seriously than a first-time ingroup offender, and (2) people would not display this effect when sentencing outgroup members.

In order to test their hypotheses, the researchers designed an experiment where participants read a narrative describing a student who hid library material where only he could find it in order to keep others from using it or gaining access to it. Participants randomly were assigned to an “ingroup” or “outgroup” condition. The ingroup condition held the perpetrator out to be a fellow psychology student while the outgroup condition held the perpetrator out to be majoring in a different subject. Additionally, participants were also randomly assigned to either a “first time” or “repeat offender” condition. Participants read the fact pattern they received then answered questions measuring their “anger/outrage” with the crime and their “societal concerns” about such conduct. Finally, participants indicated if they thought the perpetrator should be punished and, if so, how severely.

The results provided support for the researchers’ hypothesis. People gave repeat offenders harsher sentences when they were members of the ingroup. Additionally, evidence did not show the same effect for members who were in the outgroup. Their prior records did not appear to drive the severity of their punishment.

It’s worth noting the authors’ discussion of these results. They put forward the suggestion that the results are due to what the judging person (participant) thinks is threatened. A participant might see an ingroup perpetrator with a prior history as someone who threatens “normative cohesion” of the group and its values. On the other hand, a perpetrator in the outgroup is more likely to threaten the ingroup’s “power and status” as whole.

My thoughts reading the study are that we should consequently expect outgropu members to be judged more harshly on average. Here’s what I mean: a judge may be particularly harsh with a member of the ingroup who has a history of bad acts but may be especially lenient on a ingroup member with no prior transgressions. However, if a judge sees outgroup behavior as a threat to his group overall, even first time offenders should see at least a moderate punishment. So on average, the two types (ingroup v. outgroup) of perpetrators should either end up getting roughly equal treatment or, more likely, outgroup members should get it worse.

In addition to my caveat at the beginning about generalizing due to age, I also worry about how useful this particular case is. The researchers paint a student doing a bratty thing (hiding library books). Would the same results occur if the crime in question were severe such as beating someone to death or burning a building to the ground? What effect would it have if the act was a victimless one (e.g. speeding or possessing illegal narcotics)? I tend to think that punishment doesn’t act linearly. In other words, I think that a sentencing individual responds differently when the consequences of punishment are severe (e.g. life in prison) than when they are minor (e.g. probation). This point about the nonlinear psychology of sentencing is, from what I can tell, greatly under-researched. I would like to see more treatment of it.

Another flaw with the study is the questionnair method. This is an easy way of conducting research and not necessarily as bad as you might think. It lets a researcher control for some other observable traits such as race. For example, a written can hid a person’s race by not mentioning that detail but a live, mock sentencing of a human being necessarily implicates this quality. So, there are indeed some advantages to using questionnaires. There are also some downsides. It is likely easier to punish the hypothetical individual on paper than to do so to a live person. Now, perhaps the Stanford Prison Experiment should suggest to me that participants would be just as willing to exact punishments on their living colleagues but I still would like to see an acknowledgement of this limitation.

All in all, this is some interesting research. If true, it no doubt has some implications for how practitioners might want to approach sentencing matters. You may want to take into account if your client is from the same background as the judge who may sentence that client. I suspect usually, the client will be an outgroup member. But it’s never good to assume. And moreover, if your client has no prior record, it might be worth the effort to paint him or her as similar to the judging figure—it might just make the difference in getting lenient treatment.

-Zachary Cloud


Gollwitzer, M. & Keller, L. (2010). What You Did Only Matters if You Are One of Us: Offenders’ Group Membership Moderates the Effect of Criminal History on Punishment Severity. Social Psychology, 41, 20-26.

Psychology Weekends: What Makes A Police Officer Tick?

I went trawling around this afternoon through a variety of psychology journals to see if there was anything worth writing about. Lo and behold, I came across a brand new, intriguing article by two researchers in France about the psychological motivations of police officers. For this weekend’s post, I thought I’d take some time to review their work and give my thoughts on it.

The study by Gatto & Dambrun, entitled “Authoritarianism, Social Dominance, and Prejudice Among Junior Police Officers,” attempts to explain more or less why police exhibit observed social psychological traits such as Social Dominance Orientation and Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Before we dig in to the current study, let’s take a quick look at what those two traits are. Social Dominance Orientation refers to “the degree to which individuals desire and support the group-based hierarchy and the domination of ‘inferior’ groups by ‘superior’ groups.” (Gatto & Dambrun, 2012: 61 (quoting Sidanius & Pratto (1999)). The authors do a poorer job of defining Right-Wing Authoritarianism though they note that it is a construct made up of three subcategories: aggression, submission, and conventionalism. I don’t want to get too hung up on defining the constructs because it’s not critical to understanding the study’s design or results. I will just note, however, that a little bit more time defining the constructs on the authors’ part would not have been time wasted.

At any rate, the authors note previous studies showing that officer tend to score high in these two traits…meaning that they strongly exhibit characteristics of Social Dominance Orientation and Right-Wing Authoritarianism. But why? What is it that makes a police officer exhibit these traits? That’s the question these researchers set out to solve. In essence, they put forward to possible hypotheses: (1) group socialization, or (2) social projection. That is, perhaps officers tended to adopt these traits as a result of becoming socialized by their fellow officers or maybe they started exhibiting traits they perceived were important in the group to fit in.

So how did they test their hypotheses? The researches administered a survey to newly hired police officers about to begin training with questions assessing traits for the two constructs and also with questions measuring what they thought the desirable traits were among their peers and others in their organization. Finally, the participants answered questions designed to measure prejudice toward “disadvantaged groups.”

To determine the results, the authors examined descriptive data then ran the data through “EQS Structural Equation Program.” They found significant correlations between the two constructs and they also found that each construct showed a strong, positive correlation with bias against disadvantaged groups. More to the heart of the matter, the authors found statistical support for their theory that expected group norms drive individuals’ personality traits in the police context.

Okay. So here are my thoughts on the paper. First and foremost, I was a little dissatisfied with the reliance solely on a self-report measure. I am no opponent of using surveys; I think they can be particularly effective when used correctly. But here,  I don’t think they were. It’s not really enough to analyze survey-item response correlation by itself absent some sort of experimental manipulations. The authors in this study didn’t have any “experimental” or “control” that might have allowed for some causal inferences to be drawn. Why not run this same survey with civilians who have no connection to law enforcement then compare those civilians scoring similarly high on these two constructs with their police counterparts?

Another complaint with methodology is the reliance on “Structural Equations.” I know a fair amount about statistics in general and the statistical methods in the social sciences in particular…and I hadn’t ever heard of this term. It turns out to be a generic one that can refer to a variety of modeling techniques such as ANOVA, ordinary least squares regression, and the like. I would have preferred a little bit more detail regarding the specific tests being run…I certainly see familiar symbols like chi-square statistics but I am not entirely sure what to make of the data without a more descriptive explanation of the statistical models involved.

But perhaps the largest problem I see with the study is that it isn’t all that helpful in explaining or even investigating what the authors wanted to examine. In other words, if we’re interested in knowing why police tend to be so hierarchical and authoritarian, we’re no closer to knowing now than before the study was conducted. First of all, we’re facing a chicken and egg problem: do people high in these constructs tend to be come police and thus the role reinforces previously-existing character traits or does the job actually change a person’s affect? Secondly, it might be fine to say that groups of other officers tend to amplify or drive a new officer’s character traits but then you have to turn around and ask what caused those other officers to act they way they act. Again, this study is no help in answering that.

All in all, I found this research a little disappointing. I had hopes when I started to read through it that we might have some pretty interesting insights into why police have the observed character traits that we often see (e.g. strong on authoritarianism, big on hierarchy, etc…). Regrettably, this study only took some baby steps toward answering that mystery. Perhaps next week, I can share some research that’s a little bit more insightful.

-Zachary Cloud


Gatto, J. & Dambrun, M. (2012). Authoritarianism, Social Dominance, and Prejudice Among Junior Police Officers. Social Psychology, 43, 61-66.

Sidanius, J. & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierary and oppression. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Psychology Weekends: You’re Probably Bad at Spotting Liars

I am dying to find some time to sit down and write a post about the various revelations about what the National Security Agency is doing. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then you live under a rock and need to go read here and here and here IMMEDIATELY. However, my discussion of that is for another time. Right now, it’s the weekend and we’re talking psychology…and I thought it might be sort of timely to talk about lying. Given all the news coverage about spying, a post on deception seems fitting. So, let’s talk about how good we are about spotting a person telling a lie and some steps we might take to improve our personal lie-detection abilities.

For quite some time, psychologists have been looking into humans’ abilities to perceive deception. For instance, almost 20 years ago, DePaulo (1994) noted that people are generally quite bad at accurately rating the deceptiveness of other people. Participants who watched another discuss something (e.g. what they did for a living, how they felt about something, what they believed, what they knew, etc…) could not reliably determine which people were lying and which people weren’t. This same effect holds true for law enforcement; when they were pitted against untrained college students, they were no more accurate at detecting when a person was lying. Though it’s worth highlighting that law enforcement thought they were better.

Some might be quick to point out that detecting a liar requires a baseline. In other words, you need to have some knowledge of how people respond when being truthful in order to spot when they act differently (e.g. give off some sort of tell). And indeed, polygraphs are useless unless a physiological baseline can be established. Nevertheless, most people are also bad at detecting lies told by people they know well (DePaulo, 1994).

All of this is old news. Let’s talk about what you may not have heard about. The first big point to note is that there are some minor exceptions to the general rule that we’re bad at spotting lies. Consider the work of Ekman and colleagues (1999), which shows that a small number of professionals have much greater accuracy than the rest of us. The researchers gathered a large number of different law enforcement and federal personnel including members of the CIA and Secret Service. Additionally, the study compared these law enforcement agents against clinical psychologists. Interestingly enough, the authors did find that federal agents trained in detecting behavior cues (e.g. facial muscle movements) outperformed other categories and in fact had a 70% or better accuracy rate.

Ok, but let’s say you don’t have the time or money to go through lots of formal training on what types of body cues suggest potential deception. Is there anything the average joe can do to help spot a lie??

There might just be…

A fairly recent study suggests that the key may be in avoiding mimicking. You see, we very commonly will imitate the physical behaviors of people with whom we’re communicating. This is so for a variety of reasons mostly related to rapport-building. It allows us to “smooth[] interaction” and “facilitate emotional understanding” (Stel, et al., 2009: 693). However, the researches wondered if this tendency to mimic might also mask our ability to see others’ deception. To find out, they designed a study where participants were assigned to one of three categories: (1) control group, (2) do mimic the target, or (3) don’t mimic the target. Thus, half of participants received particular instruction on whether they should mimic the potential liar during a conversation while the other half received no instruction at all. Meanwhile, other participants were recruited and assigned as “targets.” They were given an opportunity to donate to a charity then later told either to be “truthful” or “dishonest” with their conversation partner about whether they decided to donate. Then the participants paired up and had 3 minute conversations where the regular participants could interact and ask questions of the target. These sessions were videotaped for analysis by the researchers.

The results showed what the authors of the study hypothesized. Participants who actively chose not to mimic the target conversation partners were more accurate at predicting if the partner was lying. This effect was true across both the experimental and control groups such that people in the control who naturally didn’t mimic their partners enjoyed the effect in the same way that participants actively choosing not to mimic did.

Additionally, there is one other option you might consider if you want to improve your own accuracy in spotting lies. Recent research suggests that creating high cognitive loads and time pressures makes it much more difficult for liars to lie well. Walczyk and colleagues tested  their “time restricted integrity confirmation (TriCon)” system of detection by using methods similar to an Implicit Attitude Test. Namely, the experimenters had participants answer questions on a laptop designed to measure how long it took participants to provide their answers. Of course, participants were told ahead of time to lie when they got to certain questions.  The basic results—though the authors’ paper gets into more depth and describes two related experiments—is that people will respond faster when they are being truthful.

The take-home point here seems to be that people under pressure will have a harder time lying. So, if you keep the heat on the person you suspect and put them under other cognitive load (e.g. multitasking while answering questions), you will probably see them take longer to answer on questions where they are not being truthful.

That’s all I have for this weekend. I should note that each of these studies presents at least a couple areas worth skepticism or criticism. In other words, aspects of the study that might properly discourage you from relying too heavily on it. While I say that much, I leave it to you to read the studies and be your own critical thinkers…I just don’t have the time to do an in-depth analysis of each one’s methods nor do you probably want that. Even still, I encourage you to read the studies yourself!

Until next time…

-Zachary Cloud


DePaulo, B.M. (1994). Spotting Lies: Can Humans Learn to Do Better? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 3, 83-86.

Ekman, P., O’Sullivan, M., & Frank, M.G. (1999). A Few Can Catch A Liar. Psychological Science, 10, 263-266.

Stel, M., van Dijk, E., & Oliver, E. (2009). You Want to Know the Truth? Then Don’t Mimic! Psychological Science, 20, 693-699.

Walczyk, J.J., Mahoney, K.T., Doverspike, D., & Griffith-Ross, D.A. (2009). Cognitive Lie Detection: Response Time and Consistency of Answers as Cues to Deception. Journal of Business and Psychology, 24, 33-49.

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