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March 4, 2003

Recent Research Relevant to Judges

Arkes, H. R. (2003). The Nonuse of Psychological Research at Two Federal Agencies. Psychological Sciences, 14( 1), 1-6

    This study reports on the reasons behind the rejection of psychological research findings by governmental agencies.  However, it is also relevant to the frequency with which jurists and legal professionals simply ignore or denigrate solid psychological facts.  There are many instances of established legal dogmas and policies that are falsified by psychological research but which continue to affect what goes on in courtrooms every day.  An example is the legal fiction that demeanor of witnesses can be reliably understood and interpreted by observers, including jurors.  Another is the mistaken notion that telling jurors that an answer is stricken or to disregard something they have heard actually means that it happens.  Jury instructions are hardly ever understood by jurors but the legal system continues to treat them as if merely speaking the words, like God did on creation day, makes it actually happen.

    Arkes cites reasons given for professionals rejecting psychological research such as "No psychologist is going to tell me how to evaluate proposals in my field."  Many legal professionals take it as a matter of fact that psychology is an inexact science and therefore can be safely disregarded.  Another is that anybody can play at the game of explaining human behavior.  No particular expertise is needed and "gut feelings" are just as valid as a carefully done psychological study.  Another is that to accept psychological findings causes upset and requires some things to be changed that people are not willing to change.  Judges often rule that psychological research is not relevant to an issue being decided.  No matter that there is over 50 years of solid research demonstrating conclusively that clinical judgment is inferior to actuarial procedures, judges often rule that experience and clinical interviews are valid and even superior to scientific data..

    Arkes also suggests that psychologists bear responsibility for some of the disdain with which legal professionals view psychology.  He sees that there are many instances where psychologists do not present opinions based on good science and knowledge of the research but rather rely on clinical lore, unsupported dogmas, and personal experience.

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