Friday, January 15, 2010

Research briefs 1-15-10: Confirmation bias, cultural competencies, adolescent brains, juvenile justice, criminal personalities

Recent articles of interest found during my weekly search of the literature.

Gurley, J. R. (2009). A HISTORY OF CHANGES TO THE CRIMINAL PERSONALITY IN THE DSM. History of Psychology, 12(4), 285-304.

There is much confusion now surrounding the diagnoses of Antisocial Personality Disorder and Psychopathy. Some individuals still refer to the two as the same diagnosis with different names, even though there is a consensus in the psychology field that the two are distinct disorders. Part of this confusion is likely to be the result of the overlap in the diagnostic criteria: both diagnoses are associated with a history of antisocial behavior. However, it is also very possible that this confusion in the literature is a result of consistent name and criteria changes for the “criminal personality” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. To make sense of the confusion surrounding the two different diagnoses, the evolution of Antisocial Personality Disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is examined in this paper.

Maroney, T. A. (2009). THE FALSE PROMISE OF ADOLESCENT BRAIN SCIENCE IN JUVENILE JUSTICE. Notre Dame Law Review, 85(1), 89-176.

Recent scientific findings about the developing teen brain have both captured public attention and begun to percolate through legal theory and practice. Indeed, many believe that developmental neuroscience contributed to the U.S. Supreme Court's elimination of the juvenile death penalty in Roper v. Simmons. Post-Roper, scholars assert that the developmentally normal attributes of the teen brain counsel differential treatment of young offenders, and advocates increasingly make such arguments before the courts. The success of any theory, though, depends in large part on implementation, and challenges that emerge through implementation illuminate problematic aspects of the theory. This Article tests the legal impact of developmental neuroscience by analyzing cases in which juvenile defendants have attempted to put it into practice. It reveals that most such efforts fail. Doctrinal factors hamstring most claims--for example, that persons with immature brains are incapable of forming the requisite mens rea for serious crimes. Limitations intrinsic to the science itself--for example, individual variation--also hinder its relevance and impact. These factors both explain why developmental neuroscience has had minimal effects on juvenile justice in the courts and illustrate why it generally should. Moreover, direct reliance on neuroscience as the metric for juvenile justice policy may jeopardize equality and autonomy interests, and brain-based arguments too frequently risk inaccuracy and overstatement. The cases also strongly suggest that neuroscience does not materially shape legal decisionmakers' beliefs and values about youthful offenders but instead will be read through the lens of those beliefs and values.

Developmental neuroscience nonetheless can play a small role in juvenile justice going forward. Legislatures and courts may regard that science as one source among many upon which to draw when basing policy choices on assumptions about juveniles as a group. To go further is unwarranted and threatens to draw attention away from critical legal and environmental factors--good schools, strong families, economic opportunities, mental health care, humane sentencing regimes, and rehabilitative services--that are both more important and subject to greater direct control.

Cunningham, M. D., Sorensen, J. R., & Reidy, T. J. (2009). CAPITAL JURY DECISION-MAKING The Limitations of Predictions of Future Violence. Psychology Public Policy and Law, 15(4), 223-256.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Jurek v. Texas (1976) affirmed that capital juries are able to identify those capital offenders who will commit serious violence in the future. The capability of capital juries to accurately make these judgments as a means of deciding which capital offenders should receive the death penalty has been widely endorsed in both statute and case law, as well as embraced by jurors. A growing body of research on rates and correlates of prison violence, however, points to this confidence being misplaced. Prior investigations of the accuracy of these capital jury predictions, though limited in number, have found alarming error rates. The current study retrospectively reviewed the post-trial (M = 5.7 years) prison disciplinary misconduct of federal capital offenders (N = 72) for whom juries considered “future dangerousness” as an aggravating factor at sentencing. These jurors’ predictive performance was no better than random guesses, with high error (false positive) rates, regardless of the severity of the anticipated violence. In light of prior studies, it is concluded that juror predictions of future violence lack sufficient reliability to play a role in death penalty determinations.


Confirmation bias is the tendency to bolster a hypothesis by seeking consistent evidence while minimizing inconsistent evidence. In criminal investigations, preferring hypothesis-consistent information could undermine accuracy by leading investigators to disregard evidence that challenges their theory of a case. Two studies examine factors that influence confirmation bias in criminal investigations. In Study 1 (N = 108), participants who articulated a hypothesis early in their review of a mock police file showed bias in seeking and interpreting evidence to favor that hypothesis. In Study 2 (N = 109), participants who considered why their hypothesis might be wrong showed less bias, but those who generated additional hypotheses did not. Implications for improving accuracy of investigations and suggestions for future research are discussed.

Perlin, M. L., & McClain, V. (2009). ''WHERE SOULS ARE FORGOTTEN'': Cultural Competencies, Forensic Evaluations, and International Human Rights. Psychology Public Policy and Law, 15(4), 257-277.

Cultural competency is critical in criminal forensic evaluations. Cultural competency eschews reliance on stereotypes, precluding the mistake of assuming that cultural dictates apply with equal force to all who share a cultural background, thus allowing the forensic examiner to provide a comprehensive picture of the defendant to the fact-finder. While raised frequently in death penalty cases, the idea of cultural competency is equally important to the entire criminal process. To better understand the significance of this inquiry, we address how cultural sensitivity in test selection and interview techniques may enhance result validity. In a parallel fashion, ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has drawn importance to cultural competency. Although international human rights and cultural sensitivity have been considered with regard to race, gender, and religion, applications to criminal matters are still in their infancy. This article considers strategies to enhance the effectiveness of testimony and mitigation efforts

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