Counterfactual thinking influences individual’s support for crime control theater policies

Manipulations that promoted counterfactual thinking led mock jurors to be more certain of the defendant’s liability, award greater damages to the parents, and perceive the agency as more responsible for the child’s death (but this varied by sample type). This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology Public Policy and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2016, Vol. 22, No. 4, 349-361

Counterfactual Thinking About Crime Control Theater: Mock Jurors’ Decision Making in an AMBER Alert Trial

Authors

Mauricio J. Alvarez, University of Nevada, Reno
Monica K. Miller, University of Nevada, Reno

Abstract

Crime control theater refers to policies enacted as a response to a moral panic, based on folk beliefs about crime; such policies are perceived as more effective than they really are. AMBER Alerts are one example of crime control theater. Beliefs that AMBER Alerts can protect children might lead people to develop counterfactual scenarios in which they think “if only” an AMBER Alert had been issued (or issued earlier) the abducted child could have been rescued. This study evaluated the influence of case characteristics conducive to generating counterfactual statements (e.g., abnormality, controllability) and juror education on mock jurors’ decision making in a trial involving parents who are suing a law enforcement agency for negligence following the agency’s alleged failure to rescue their abducted child. Manipulations that promoted counterfactual thinking led mock jurors to be more certain of the defendant’s liability, award greater damages to the parents, and perceive the agency as more responsible for the child’s death (but this varied by sample type). Conversely, educating jurors on the limitations of the AMBER Alert system resulted in lower certainty of the agency’s responsibility and nullified the effect of AMBER Alert issuance on damage awards. The effects of abnormality and controllability on participants’ decisions were mediated by generating counterfactual statements. Findings indicate that counterfactual thinking might influence individuals’ support for crime control theater policies. Specifically, individuals exposed to aversive events (e.g., abduction and death of a child) might be motivated to support policies (e.g., AMBER Alerts) that could have prevented the aversive event.

Keywords

AMBER Alert, counterfactual thinking, juror decision making, crime control theater, expert testimony

Summary of the Research

“The AMBER Alert system was developed in 1996 as an early warning system aimed at alerting the community about child abductions in hopes that community members could provide law enforcement with information to help rescue the abducted child safely. The AMBER Alert system quickly spread throughout the United States; by 2005, all 50 states had developed AMBER Alert systems. Despite its popularity, there are concerns regarding whether the AMBER Alert system is able to accomplish its goals. Regardless of its actual effectiveness, the AMBER Alert system generally receives strong public support, likely because it seeks to address an issue that generates extreme public distress (i.e., child abduction). In this sense, the AMBER Alert system represents an example of crime control theater. Crime control theater refers to policies that are enacted in order to give the impression that government agencies are taking active steps toward “doing something” to address a social issue, even though these policies do not actually accomplish their stated goals—and might have unintended negative consequences. The desire to preserve the belief that crime control theater policies are effective might make individuals susceptible to cognitive biases” (p. 349).

“The purpose of this article is to investigate a social– cognitive bias that might affect jurors’ verdicts in cases that involve a crime control theater policy (AMBER). Specifically, the study investigated whether mock jurors’ counterfactual thinking can bias their decisions. Counterfactual thinking is the process of developing “what if” scenarios to determine the factors that led to a particular outcome as well as how changing these factors might alter the outcome. Anecdotal evidence suggests that counterfactual thinking can bias individuals’ perceptions of a situation involving AMBER Alerts” (p. 349).

“In addition to counterfactual thinking, the present study evaluated the influence of expert testimony and sample type on mock jurors’ decisions. Educating jurors via expert testimony can influence support for AMBER Alerts and other crime control policies because support is in part predicated by public misconceptions about these policies. Therefore, correcting these misconceptions might reduce support for these policies and might influence counterfactual thinking about these policies. Additionally, perceptions of crime control theater policies might differ between college students and community members. This could occur if community members find AMBER Alerts to be a more relevant issue for them compared to college participants” (p. 350).

“This study evaluated the influence of counterfactual thinking, education, and sample type (college students vs. MTurk workers) on juror decision making in the context of a civil wrongful death trial involving AMBER Alerts. Participants acted as mock jurors in a fictional trial in which the parents of an abducted child who was later found murdered sue the Sheriff’s Office in charge of issuing AMBER Alerts. Parents claim the Sheriff’s Office was partially responsible for their abducted child’s death. Specific details of the trial were experimentally manipulated to present participants with scenarios more or less conducive to generating counterfactual statements. Issuance and timing of the AMBER Alert were manipulated by trial facts indicating the AMBER Alert was not issued, issued after 1 hour, or issued after 6 hours. Procedure was manipulated by trial facts indicating whether the issuance or nonissuance of the AMBER Alert was a result of standard procedure or a result of officer error. For expert testimony, participants were either presented with expert testimony, or not. Manipulating Issuance and Procedure address the mutability of event antecedents (i.e., both issuance and normality of procedure could be changed to reach a different outcome—that the child was rescued). Manipulating the presence of expert testimony manipulated the influence of event antecedents on the outcome of the case (i.e., changing antecedents does not change the outcome if AMBER Alerts do not help rescue abducted children)” (p. 352).

“Based on the available literature, we expected participants in conditions more conducive to generating counterfactual statements (e.g., more mutable antecedents) to be more punitive toward the Sheriff’s Office (e.g., greater certainty of liability, higher recommended damage awards). We expected these effects to be moderated by education, such that only participants who were not educated on the limited effectiveness of AMBER Alerts through expert testimony would be influenced by conditions more conductive to counterfactual thinking. We expected that educating participants on the limited effectiveness of AMBER Alerts through expert testimony would result in participants being less punitive toward the Sheriff’s Office. We expected these effects to be mediated by counterfactual thinking, such that conditions that facilitate counterfactual thinking would lead to higher number of counterfactual thoughts generated by the participant, which in turn would result in greater punitiveness. Finally, we made no specific directional predictions regarding the effect of sample type on participants’ decision making due to the contradictory findings on this subject” (p.352).

In general, results suggested that greater uncertainty of preceding events lead participants to greater punitive decisions towards the Sheriff’s Office. Participants were more punitive towards the Sheriff’s Office (e.g., endorsed higher ratings of certainty regarding liability, awarded higher damages) in cases that had more mutable antecedents (e.g., AMBER alert issuance was impacted by officer’s error). Educating mock jurors on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of crime control theater, specifically AMBER alerts, through expert testimony resulted in participants awarding less damages and opinioned that the Sheriff’s office was less responsible, compared to their control counterparts who did not receive education surrounding crime control theater policies. The effects of counterfactual thinking were hypothesized to mediate the aforementioned findings; specifically, in which the conditions that facilitated counterfactual thinking would endorse more punitive ratings. This hypothesis was partially supported by participants in their MTurk (community) sample who provided less counterfactual reasoning responses and were less certain of the Sheriff’s liability when the AMBER alert was issued after one hour compared to participants in the condition where no amber alert was issued.  Additionally, this study found that students and community members make decisions differently. This finding highlights that sample matters and supports prior research indicating that differences in sample characteristics influence decisions, support, and perception.

“Support for crime control theater policies is predicated in part by individuals’ cognitive biases. Previous research indicates that the AMBER Alert system is very popular and is believed to be highly effective, despite evidence that suggests its effectiveness is limited. The results of this study demonstrate that one of the cognitive mechanisms underlying this support is counterfactual thinking. Beliefs which overestimate the effectiveness of crime control policies result in negative perception of law enforcement agencies when AMBER Alerts are not issued, when there are abnormal circumstances surrounding the issuance of AMBER Alerts, or when mock jurors are not educated on the limitations of the AMBER Alert system. The results of juror education highlight that it is possible to reduce support for crime control theater policies such as AMBER Alert by educating the public on their low effectiveness. This, in turn, might make it easier to reevaluate and modify these policies to increase their effectiveness. Finally, the results of this study indicate that MTurk and college participants differ in their decision-making process, an effect which might be driven by demographic factors and differences in motivation for completing online studies” (p. 359).

Translating Research into Practice

“The effects of the Procedure manipulation suggest that individuals generally attribute greater fault to law enforcement when they fail to rescue abducted children as a result of individual officer’s error, compared to when they fail to rescue abducted children while following established procedure. Also, educating participants led to lowered perceptions of responsibility and eliminated differences in damage awards based on the issuance or nonissuance of the AMBER Alert. These findings indicate that people believe that AMBER Alerts are effective. These beliefs about the effectiveness of AMBER Alerts can result in public backlash against law enforcement agencies that do not issue AMBER Alerts, even when this is a result of policy guidelines (e.g., there was not enough information to issue an AMBER Alert)” (p. 357).

“The effects of expert testimony demonstrate that education can be a powerful tool to reduce popular support for crime control theater policies. This occurs because education challenges the factors that make these policies popular, which limits individuals’ certainty that crime control theater policies “save the day.” In the context of AMBER Alerts, individuals might be less supportive of the AMBER Alert system after learning that a) AMBER Alerts are considerably less effective than most people think, and b) AMBER Alerts focus on stranger abductions even though familial abductions are more common. This lower support, in turn, might facilitate the development of alternative policies which can more effectively address the issue of child abduction. Alternatively, lower support might result in lower opposition on redirecting funding from the AMBER Alert system into programs designed to address other hazards which are more common (e.g., children deaths due to choking). A similar effect might occur with other crime control theater policies: as individuals are educated on the limited effectiveness and incorrect assumptions about crime perpetrators and victims, support for crime control policies would wane which in turn might allow for the development of more effective policies to address social issues” (p. 357).

“The findings of this study indicate that circumstances conducive to generating counterfactual statements can influence mock jurors’ verdict certainty and damage awards. Given beliefs about the effectiveness of the AMBER Alert system, it is likely that the expert witness’ testimony challenged mock jurors’ beliefs. Despite this challenge, mock jurors were able to incorporate the expert witness’ information into their verdict decision. This suggests that, at least for certain topics, jurors’ preexisting beliefs might be successfully challenged by expert witness’ testimony” (p. 358).

“In the context of educating jurors about the limited effectiveness of AMBER Alerts, the counterintuitive nature of the facts (i.e., AMBER Alerts are perceived as effective, but are not) suggests that these facts are beyond the jurors’ knowledge. Similarly, cross-examination of the involved parties seems unlikely to result in this knowledge being imparted to the jury, as both the plaintiffs and the defendants probably share the general perception of AMBER Alerts as effective. The knowledge presented by an expert witness on the issue of AMBER Alert effectiveness is arguably highly relevant to a case in which the issuance or nonissuance of an AMBER Alert is linked to the death of a child, particularly given that the evidence suggests that AMBER Alerts have generally little impact on the outcome of child abductions. Finally, the findings from the present study on the effect of juror education suggest that jurors generally accept the expert’s testimony and adjust their decisions accordingly, an effect which would not occur if jurors were confused by the testimony” (p. 358).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The use of mock jurors raises concerns about verisimilitude of the study (i.e., whether participants would find the case believable). Verisimilitude can impact mock jurors’ decision because a lack of verisimilitude can lead participants to pay less attention to the study materials because they do not represent a “real” trial. As a result, the findings might be different to what occurs in real trials. Similarly, the use of mock jurors raises concerns about consequentiality (i.e., because it is a mock juror study, there are no “real” consequences to participants’ decisions. This can lead participants to pay less attention to their answers, or to provide random answers because there is no “real” defendant who is affected by the participants’ decisions. Finally, the study evaluated participants’ responses at the individual level, rather than at the group (i.e., jury) level. This can influence participants’ responses because group processes (i.e., deliberation) can result in jurors changing their individual assessment of the case, particularly if they find themselves as part of the minority opinion” (p. 358).

“The findings of this study showed how counterfactual thinking can impact mock jurors’ decisions in cases involving a crime control theater policy (i.e., AMBER Alerts): circumstances which are conducive to counterfactual thinking result in greater punitiveness toward the Sheriff’s Office. In line with previous research results provided further evidence that individuals can be educated about the low effectiveness of crime control theater policies. Future research should expand on these findings by evaluating how counterfactual thinking and education about the limited effectiveness of crime control theater policies impact support for crime control policies beyond the context of a civil trial, for example in evaluating public support/opposition to legislation implementing or dismantling crime control theater policies. In addition, future research should also evaluate the impact of personal relevance on support for crime control theater policies and on openness to education about the effectiveness of crime control policies. For example, are parents more supportive of AMBER Alerts, compared to nonparents? Are parents less likely to decrease support for AMBER Alerts after learning about their limited effectiveness, compared to nonparents? Research on the impact of personal relevance could help identify individual characteristics that make individuals more or less likely to support crime control theater policies” (p. 359).

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As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored by Amanda Beltrani

Amanda Beltrani is a current graduate student in the Forensic Psychology Masters program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Her professional interests include forensic assessments, specifically, criminal matter evaluations. Amanda plans to continue her studies in a doctoral program after completion of her Masters degree.

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