I was Born this Way: Psychopathology Etiology Determines Level of Blame

Criminals with a genetically predisposed psychopathology are seen as more blameworthy than those having psychopathology with an environmental etiology. 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 | 2017, Advanced Online Publication

Crime, Punishment, and Causation: The Effect of Etiological Information on the Perception of Moral Agency

Authors

Philip Robbins, University of Missouri
Paul Litton, University of Missouri

Abstract

Moral judgments about a situation are profoundly shaped by the perception of individuals in that situation as either moral agents or moral patients. Specifically, the more we see someone as a moral agent, the less we see them as a moral patient, and vice versa. As a result, casting the perpetrator of a transgression as a victim tends to have the effect of making them seem less blameworthy. Based on this theoretical framework, we predicted that criminal offenders with a mental disorder that predisposes them to antisocial behavior would be judged more negatively when the disorder is described as having a genetic origin than when it is described as environmentally caused, as in the case of childhood abuse or accident. Further, we predicted that some environmental explanations would mitigate attributions of blame more than others, namely, that offenders whose disorder was caused by childhood abuse (intentional harm) would be seen as less blameworthy than offenders whose disorder is caused by an unfortunate accident (unintentional harm). Results from two vignette-based studies designed to test these predictions, conducted with participants recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk (N=244 and N=387, respectively), confirmed the first prediction but not the second. Implications of this research for three areas—the psychology of moral judgment, philosophical debates about moral responsibility and determinism, and the practice of the law—are discussed in the sequel.

Keywords

moral typecasting, blame, punishment, responsibility, causation

Summary of the Research

“Are physiological or environmental explanations relevant to determining […] culpability [in] crimes? Aside from this puzzling philosophical question, it is important to know whether people generally find such explanations relevant to blame and punishment. Accordingly, empirical researchers have investigated the extent to which such causal explanations influence ordinary intuitions about appropriate punishment. With scientific knowledge advancing with respect to the causes of antisocial conduct, it should be helpful to lawyers and lawmakers to know the extent to which such evidence may affect judges and juries. Empirical research into the effect of causal explanations on judgments of blameworthiness, moral responsibility, and appropriate punishment could have practical importance for criminal lawyers as well as for courts assessing the obligations of counsel.” (p. 1)
“A natural starting point for this investigation is empirical research on the general structure of moral cognition. Of particular relevance to our project is the Theory of Dyadic Morality (TDM), which posits a single cognitive template underlying all moral judgments. According to TDM, moral judgments about a situation are profoundly shaped by the perception of individuals in that situation as either moral agents or moral patients. By definition, a moral agent has the capacity to perform morally good or bad actions, whereas a moral patient has the capacity to be on the receiving end of such actions. The conceptual dichotomy between agency and patiency is governed by the principle of “moral typecasting”: The more we see someone as a moral agent, the less we see them as a moral patient, and vice versa. In other words, moral agency and moral patiency are antithetical roles, and moral actors tend to be cast in one role to the exclusion of the other, even across contexts. For example, casting the perpetrator of a transgression as a victim of harm tends to have the effect of making them seem less blameworthy.” (p. 2)

“In the present context, the significance of TDM as an account of moral cognition is largely because of the fact that it generates clear predictions about how etiological information will influence the way people think about criminal behavior. According to the theory, we should expect that criminal offenders with a mental dis- order that predisposes them to violent antisocial behavior will be judged more negatively when the disorder is described as having a genetic origin than when it is described as environmentally caused, as in the case of childhood abuse or accident. The basis of this prediction is as follows. When the disorder has an environmental origin, there is a preexisting person who has suffered harm; hence, the perception of their moral patiency should be heightened, and the perception of their moral agency attenuated, by the addition of etiological information. When the disorder has a genetic origin, by contrast, there is no preexisting person to whom harm has been done (because no person exists before the determination of their genetic profile), so the perception of their moral agency should be unaffected by the receipt of information about the cause of their pathology. In other words, offenders whose disorder arises from environmental causes should be seen as less blameworthy than offenders whose disorder is caused by bad genes, because the former will be seen as victims but the latter will not. Moreover, genetic explanations of psychopathology, insofar as they do not implicate personal harm or victimhood, should not affect the perception of moral agency.” (p. 2)

“Results from the two studies presented here show that ordinary judgments of blame, punishment, and other aspects of moral agency are sensitive to information about the etiology of psychological impairments in criminal offenders. In line with the Theory of Dyadic Morality, offenders whose psychopathology was because of environmental causes were seen as less deserving of moral sanction than those whose pathology was genetic in origin; indeed, offenders whose pathology was genetic were judged no less negatively than offenders whose pathology was given no etiological explanation at all. These findings are consistent with prior studies finding no mitigation effect for genetic causal stories on judgments of blame and punishment. However, our results contrast with some previous research on whether evidence of suffering childhood abuse mitigates judgments of blame and punishment. We predicted that evidence of childhood abuse would produce greater mitigation in our studies because our vignettes, unlike those used in earlier research, included details about the abuse suffered. This prediction was borne out by our results.” (p. 7)

Translating Research into Practice

“The principle of moral typecasting says that the more we see someone as a moral patient (e.g., a victim), the less we see them as a moral agent (e.g., a villain), and conversely. Applied to the legal context, the principle suggests that criminal offenders will be judged less negatively when they are perceived as victims of harm relative to offenders who are not so perceived. Accordingly, it predicts that an agent whose criminal behavior is linked to psychopathology will be judged more negatively when the pathology is genetic rather than environmental in origin, because only in the environmental case will the agent be perceived as a victim of harm. This prediction was borne out by the results of Study 1. In two hypothetical crime scenarios, an offender with a brain disorder was perceived as more deserving of blame and punishment when the etiology of his disorder was genetic rather than environmental.” (p. 5)

“[O]ur findings are relevant to the practice of law, particularly in capital cases. It is important not to exaggerate the practical significance of the results reported here, however, especially given the fact that our participants were recruited from MTurk, and MTurk workers as a group are not perfectly representative of the communities from which jurors are drawn. That said, our research does suggest […] one way to escape blame is to be a victim, evidence of environmental etiology may be effective for the defense when the etiology of the disorder underlying the defendant’s wrongdoing implicates victimhood. Evidence of genetic etiology is a different story. Because genetic behavioral evidence is unlikely to reduce judgments of blame and responsibility, time and resources should be directed toward other strategies, especially if genetic behavioral evidence suggests future dangerousness.” (p. 9)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

Our findings in Study 2 about the effect of specifying a neural mechanism for an offender’s disorder also suggest further avenues for research. Attributing a neural basis to the disorder had only a small mitigating effect on judgments of moral responsibility and no effect on judgments of blame or punishment. This result contrasts to some extent with work by Greene and Cahill (2012), who found that psychiatric diagnostic evidence coupled with evidence from neuro- psychological tests and neuroimaging produced greater mitigating effects with respect to punishment than psychiatric diagnostic evidence alone, at least in cases in which the defendant presented a high risk for future dangerousness. Against this background, further investigation into the effect of neuroscientific evidence on judgments of blame and punishment is warranted. A natural extension of our project, for example, would be to add to the design of Study 2 an additional level of the mechanistic factor that included neuroimaging evidence.

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As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add! To read the full article, click here.

Authored by Kenny Gonzalez

Kenny Gonzalez is currently a master’s student in the Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College. His main research interest include forensic assessment, specifically violence risk. In the future, Kenny hopes to obtain a Phd in clinical forensic psychology and pursue a career in academia and practice.

Disgust Reactions from Color Photographs Make Jurors More Conviction Prone

Mock jurors were randomly assigned to view either nongruesome photographs or gruesome photographs in color or black and white. Color gruesome photographs, compared to nongruesome photographs, increased convictions due to the disgust reactions they elicited. This was especially pronounced for mock jurors with relatively higher awareness of their bodily sensations. The effects of gruesome photographs in color on disgust and verdicts were eliminated when the same photographs were presented in black and white. 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 | 2017, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 336-350

Seeing Red: Disgust Reactions to Gruesome Photographs in Color (but not in Black and White) Increase Convictions

Authors

Jessica M. Salerno, Arizona State University

Abstract

Jurors are often exposed to emotionally disturbing gruesome photographs of victims of extreme violence. Judges must determine whether the informational value of these photographs outweighs their prejudicial effect on jurors and are left to their assumptions about juror psychology to do so. The current research draws upon the affect infusion model (AIM; Forgas, 1995) to investigate the affective mechanism through which gruesome photographs might operate. A mock jury experiment presented online adults (n=193) with murder trial evidence that included verbal descriptions of the victim’s injuries and neutral photographs in all conditions. Participants were randomly assigned to view (a) only the nongruesome photographs or additional gruesome photographs of the victim in (b) color, or (c) black and white (B&W). Color gruesome (vs. nongruesome) photographs increased convictions via the disgust they elicited. Consistent with the AIM, this was especially so for mock jurors with relatively higher awareness of their bodily sensations. The effects of gruesome photographs in color on disgust and verdicts were eliminated, however, when the same photographs were presented in B&W. A second experiment (n=354) replicated these results and also revealed that viewing color gruesome photographs significantly reduced mock jurors’ sensitivity to a manipulation of defense evidence strength— especially among jurors with relatively higher bodily awareness. Thus, gruesome photographs can increase convictions via direct and indirect affect infusion. Presenting gruesome photographs in B&W might reduce jurors’ emotional reactions while maintaining their probative information.

Keywords

jury decision making, emotion, gruesome photographs, disgust, blame

Summary of the Research

“The current studies draw upon the affect infusion model (AIM), which describes how negative emotion resulting from emotionally evocative information (e.g., gruesome photographs of a murder victim) can influence the way we process other information and ultimately color our judgments (e.g., verdicts) to be in line with that negative emotion. To test this model in a jury context, two experiments assessed mock jurors’ negative emotions and verdicts in a murder case that included verbal descriptions of the victim’s injuries and neutral photographs in all conditions. Mock jurors were randomly assigned to see only these nongruesome photographs, or additional gruesome photographs of the victim in B&W or color (Studies 1 and 2). This design enabled a test of how viewing gruesome photographs might increase convictions through direct and indirect affect infusion” (p.336).

“The second study manipulates defense evidence strength to test whether gruesome photographs increase convictions by biasing jurors’ processing of other evidence to justify blaming the defendant (i.e., indirect affect infusion). That is, whether gruesome photographs make mock jurors less sensitive to strong (vs. weak) defense evidence. Application of the AIM to this context also suggests an intervention that might ameliorate affect infusion effects on verdicts: presenting the gruesome photographs in a less emotionally evocative way (i.e., in B&W)” (p.336).

“…To test the affective mechanisms underlying the gruesome photographs effect, I hypothesized the following indirect and conditional indirect effects of gruesome photographs on verdicts. Hypothesis 1: Gruesome photographs in color (but not in B&W) increase convictions through increased negative emotion…Hypothesis 2: Color gruesome photographs will have a stronger effect as mock jurors’ bodily awareness increases…Hypothesis 3: Gruesome photographs in color will reduce jurors’ sensitivity to strong defense evidence. The AIM and CCM [culpable control model of blame] suggest that if jurors’ negative emotions are aroused by gruesome photographs, they will be less likely to process, retrieve, and apply evidence that is incongruent with their negative emotion and resulting need to blame someone for the transgression (i.e., defense evidence)” (p.339).

“Study 1 demonstrated support for the hypotheses. First, viewing color gruesome photographs of a murder victim made mock jurors more conviction prone because they increased disgust; but this effect did not generalize to less vivid B&W versions of the same photographs…Consistent with the AIM, even though the color and B&W gruesome photographs contained the same information relevant to the verdict decision, only seeing the relatively more vivid, color photographs produced enough disgust to be infused into verdicts and increase convictions. Second, this effect was stronger among mock jurors who tend to be relatively more aware of their bodily sensations…Of note, anger was not a mediator at any level of bodily awareness because-event though both anger and disgust increased convictions-the gruesome photographs increased only disgust” (p.342).

“Support for the three hypotheses designed to test the theory that viewing gruesome photographs in color will increase convictions through affective disgust-based channels were largely replicated. First, viewing the more vivid color gruesome photographs of a murder victim again made mock jurors more conviction prone because they increased disgust, relative to when they only read verbal descriptions of the injuries and saw neutral photographs. Second, this effect did not generalize to less vivid B&W versions of the same photographs. The one exception to the replication pattern, however, was that the direct comparison of color to B&W gruesome photographs dropped from significant in Study 1 to marginal in Study 2. Third, mock jurors’ disgust reactions to the color gruesome photographs increased convictions among those who tend to be relatively more aware of the sensations in their body. Consistent with Study 1, anger did not explain any effects of color gruesome photographs on verdicts” (p.344).

“The new hypothesis that presenting color gruesome photographs would make jurors less sensitive to strong defense evidence was also supported among those relatively higher in awareness of their bodily sensations. That is, reading strong (vs. weak) defense evidence made them perceive the defense evidence as stronger and, in turn, reduced their likelihood of voting guilty as long as their negative affect was not roused (i.e., in the no-gruesome control). This sensitivity to defense evidence strength was significantly reduced, however, when their disgust was roused by gruesome photographs in either color or B&W. Mock jurors with relatively lower bodily awareness were sensitive to defense evidence strength no matter how vivid the photographic evidence. This suggests that the desensitization among jurors with relatively higher bodily awareness was instigated by their affective response to the color gruesome photographs” (p.345).

Translating Research into Practice

“Judges are gatekeepers who decide whether emotionally disturbing evidence should be allowed in court. The Federal Rules of Evidence (Rule 403) state that judges can exclude such evidence if its prejudicial impact outweighs its probative value, but provide little guidance about how to judge such an issue. Thus, judges-as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys making admissibility arguments-are in need of psychological research that demonstrates the extent to which gruesome photographs can affect verdicts through probative and/or affective channels. Judges should be aware that color gruesome photographs can make jurors more conviction prone because they induce disgust-even when the photographs add little to no probative information beyond other evidence. Further, judges and attorneys should be aware that viewing gruesome photographs in color or B&W can prejudice jurors against strong defense evidence, rending them less sensitive to its strength and more motivated to discount it” (p.346).

“…The goal of the current studies is not to argue that the emotional response to gruesome photographs should always be considered prejudicial, but instead to demonstrate that they can affect verdicts via emotion directly and indirectly through biasing their processing of defense evidence-even when they do not provide additional probative information. It is up to judges making admissibility decisions to determine whether these emotion-drive effects are legally prejudicial and to weigh them against the photographs’ potential probative value. In cases where the color/quantity of blood is irrelevant to the legal issues being considered to judge guilt, presenting the gruesome photographs in a less prejudicial way (i.e., in a les vivid B&W version) an prevent jurors’ disgust response to color gruesome photographs from coloring their judgments…Finally, attorneys might want to consider assessing jurors’ likelihood of being relatively more or less aware of their emotional reactions in these types of cases during jury selection…” (p.346-347).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“The current results make theoretical contributions by furthering our understanding of how and why gruesome photographs affect blame judgments. The current results provide support for the AIM’s direct affect infusion: mock jurors might consult their negative emotions heuristically while making a verdict judgment and, as a result, misattribute their negative emotion due to seeing a victim of a horrific crime to how they feel about the defendant’s guilt. The results also support the indirect route to affect infusion described by the AIM and the CCM: negative emotions resulting from color gruesome photographs might motivate jurors to discount strong defense evidence…The findings are also theoretically consistent with moral psychology studies demonstrating that disgust (but not other negative emotions like sadness) is infused into moral judgments of transgressions among those who are relatively more sensitive to their bodily sensations. Finally, the finding that disgust, but not anger, increased convictions contributes to the growing theoretical discussion of differences between the effect of anger and disgust on moral judgments” (p.346).

Join the Discussion

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

Authored by Amber Lin

Amber Lin is a volunteer in Dr. Zapf’s research lab at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She graduated from New York University in 2013 with a B.A. (honors) and hopes to obtain her PhD in forensic clinical psychology. Her research interests include forensic assessment, competency to stand trial, and the refinement of instruments used to assess the psychological states of criminal defendants.