Application of Social Psychology to Legal Issues

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The legal system is not perfect because there are loopholes and discrepancies that need to be addressed. For the most part, it achieves its purpose of putting an end to a wrongdoing, thereby enforcing justice. To get to the end result, police officers, lawyers, and judges rely on eyewitness testimonies and juries, all of which are susceptible to commit flaws. The fact is, psychologists and lawyers do not wholly agree when it comes to determining sound testimonies, which essentially adds to the imperfectness of the system. In addition, juries and judges are not fully trained to detect any nuances in human behaviour and speech.

Thus, social psychologists should work more closely with eyewitnesses, lawyers and juries-who are ultimately in-charge of the fate of an accused person-to attain a better result in regards to the processes and result of trial proceedings. Social psychologists can also inform legal professionals and those who are apart of the criminal justice system about scientific facts as to the reasons why people obey the law. Almost everyone is aware and will agree that human memory is not a hundred percent dependable. Think back to the times when keys were misplaced, doors were left unlocked even though we were certain that we have locked them.

These instances show that our memories can sometimes fool us into thinking that something is the absolute truth because we end up believing what we would like to. This is because the human mind “creates its own vision of reality” (Loh). It also illustrates that human memory is “comple[x], selectivit[ive] and malleab[le]” (Loftus, O’Toole and Easterly). Although this is the case, jurors still believe that “their memories are above average [which] suggests that potential juror may begin each trial with unwarranted confidence in memory and the ability to identify faces…. ausing jurors to overestimate the accuracy of witness memories as well” (Loftus, O’Toole and Easterly).

Another reason that eyewitness testimonies are not so precise is due to the fact that what people “recall and report to others can be inaccurate and incomplete…. [plus] overhead co-witness information or investigator comments and questions are known to alter witness’ original memories of an event” (MacLin, K. M. , Zimmerman, Meissner, MacLin, O. H. , Tredoux and Malpass).

In addition, if investigators or police officers corroborate the testimony of an eyewitness through “casual remarks and subliminal body messages,” chances are the eyewitness will have the mistaken belief that his or her recollection of the event is the whole truth (Sycamnias). A hundred percent accuracy of an eyewitness testimony is not always possible unless the eyewitness recounts the event right after it has transpired. Inferences can also affect the perceived notion of an eyewitness. This can cause an alteration in the way the events took place, minor details in the description or version of the story.

Therefore, suggestive comments by authorities can actually “condone… or bolster… an eyewitness testimony… [which can fill] in vague and fuzzy recollections with fictional [or attributed] facts” (Sycamnias). Thus, “misled subjects really do experience recollections of suggestion as recollections of details seen in the event” (Ross). Furthermore, suggestive statements made by an officer may make an eyewitness say information in relation to it because the eyewitness may want to comply “with what they believe the interviewer wants to hear” (Sycamnias).

This idea of suggestibility is especially influential to very young eyewitnesses because they do not know “how to identify a leading question; the effect of leading questions; the effect of interviewer bias… ” (McMurtrie). With this in mind, the scientific community specifically the field of psychology can assist in reforming the legal system. They can help “reform eyewitness identification procedures… [by helping determine] which eyewitness phenomena are reliable enough for presentation to a jury and which are not… ” since they know more about human behaviour and external and internal factors that affect memory and cognition (Tubb, Hosch, and Memon).

Similarly, it should come naturally for legal professionals to seek “those concerned with studying human behaviour,” when dealing with eyewitnesses because these experts can provide them with new knowledge, insights and scientific opinion that they may not be aware of (Davis). Therefore, psychology in essence can actually “provide scientific information that would not ordinarily be available to the law” (Loh).

In general, lawyers have always felt that their rigorous education and training has sufficiently equipped them with the appropriate skills to determine matters for themselves. A typical legal practitioner, in general is not “convinced that the psychologist has any comprehension of legal problems;…and rebukes him for not drawing freely upon the body of knowledge he has so carefully and laboriously built up” (Loh). Lawyers only seek the professional expertise of psychologists if their testimony is part of the evidence that they will present to the court.

Psychologists who are asked for their opinion in court usually deal with cases that involve an insanity plea. Equally important is that lawyers think that tests and studies done by psychologists relating to eyewitness testimonies and behaviour do not apply in every situation (Loh). This has been why “courts have not rushed to embrace expert psychological testimony… ” (Loh). For instance, “[s]tudies of the impact of a defendant’s attractiveness on a juror’s decision…say something about social perception theory but produce no information meaningful to law” (Sales).

In other words, most if not all, social psychological theories mainly apply exclusively to the field of psychology. Conversely, the practice of social psychology is relatively more applicable to Psychology than to any legal processes and decision making. On the other hand, juries view eyewitness accounts as favourable in a sense that they tend to think that the information they provide is solid and accurate. They also take into account eyewitness testimonies when basing their final decision. Juries are not informed and properly advised about factors that contradict this notion. Factors such as assage of time… exposure to ‘post event’ information such as conversations with other witnesses or media reports… witness’ eyesight and concentration, the amount of lighting, the length of exposure, the quality of the view, whether a weapon or violence was involved, and the procedures used by police to obtain the identification” are other causes as to why eyewitness testimonies are not so reliable (Loftus, O’Toole and Easterly).

Also, juries do not usually consider situational variables as factors even though they should. Eyewitnesses encounter “situational manipulation (e. g. xposure time, phrasing of questions) and subjective influences (e. g. stress, cultural expectations) [which] can shape the acquisition of information create a new ‘memory’ from the stored initial information and distort subsequent recollection” (Loh). In addition, juries may think that a person’s behaviour, be it the criminal or the eyewitness, will clearly inform them of what they need to know to arrive at a conclusion regarding a case. Although, according to Dripps (2003) … [s]ocial and cognitive psychology teaches us to distrust that judgment… both personality and situation influence behaviour….

The ascendant view in psychology is now ‘interactionism,’ and holds unsurprisingly that both personality and situation play important roles in causing human behaviour… Jurors also experience situational factors in the private confines of the jury room. Situational factors in a jury room actually play a role in jurors ascertaining their final decision on which side they will ultimately favour in the end. Problems can arise at… a jury trial:… the way in which they process information during the trial, and the way in which they deliberate in the jury room… he jury’s final decision will be the same as the one favoured by a majority of juror on the initial vote… (Social Psychology and the Law).

Therefore, the majority’s opinion can cause anxiety or doubt to those select few who vote against the majority. This may result in an individual changing his or her initial decision because this person may think that the majority vote is right. While, there may be others who do not take their role as a juror seriously. Hence, they might base their decision on what everyone else considers as right.

For this reason, social psychologists should educate jurors about the function and benefit of what they are assigned to do. Also, they can inform jurors on what to look for in eyewitnesses- body language, meanings behind what they are saying- in order to help them arrive at a better decision. The legal system has convicted innocent people because of “mistaken eyewitness identification [which] played a major role in two-thirds of the first 138 DNA exonerations in the United States” (McMurtrie). Thus, social psychologists can help prevent this and other unfortunate circumstance from perpetually occurring.

It will also lead to an improvement in the current legal system. Moreover, social psychologists can help figure out if the testimony rendered by an eyewitness is accurate. Social psychologists can delve into the speech and behaviour of an eyewitness. Their expertise can shed light on certain human behaviours that legal professionals are unaware of. For instance, legal professionals think that people follow laws because they are afraid of punishment. In all actuality, it has something to do with it but the reason is far more complex than that.

Laws are obeyed because people feel that it is legitimate (Loud). Legitimacy means that people believe “that an authority is entitled to be obeyed” (Tyler). This is why people continue to obey police and courts, even though there had been instances wherein they acted contrary to what the public expected them to. Also, the fact that laws are created by a group of people establishes its legitimacy because “the majority is saying that it is right,” so the rest perceives that it must be right (Loud). Also, people see the legitimacy of a law when it is functional.

Functional in this sense means that “good will come out of the law that will benefit society. ” (Loud) Once the value of the law has been expressed either by the public at large or individuals towards each other, people develop an ‘internalized obligation’ to follow it (Loud). Also, people act on this ‘internalized obligation’ consistently because it has become entrenched within them. In addition, people obey the law because it is in accordance with their moral beliefs. For example, people think that murder is wrong because people value human life and the act itself violates how a person should treat another (Tyler).

Therefore, “disobedience is permissible only when there is no independent moral reason to obey or when the weight of independent reasons favours disobedience” (Patterson). Lastly, situational factors contribute to a person ultimately deciding to obey a law. Stanley Milgram, a professor of Pyschology and conducted the famous Milgram Study, states that “it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act” (Kirkley). In short, eyewitness testimonies are fallible because human memory is not reliable all the time due to its selectivity and malleability.

Also, testimonies overhead by another witness, suggestive comments by investigators and media influence may make eyewitnesses alter, embellish or add inaccurate details or information to their recorded testimonies. In order for discrepancies to be easily detected, lawyers must let psychologists figure out if this is the case. However, lawyers feel that psychologists have no real understanding and informed knowledge regarding legal problems. Lawyers also believe that tests and studies done by psychologists about eyewitness testimonies and behaviour do not apply in every case.

Hence, the usability of psychological tests and studies are not a standard form or basis to identify human behaviour, in this instance eyewitness behaviour. This is why the legal system had not seriously considered and incorporated psychological tests and studies. Psychologists can also inform juries about situational factors that affect an eyewitness’ perceived notion of an event. In addition, psychologists can educate legal professionals as to why people obey the law; namely the law’s legitimacy in relation to the people who enforce it and its creation by a group of people.

The law’s functionality also shows its benefit to the society and its accordance to people’s moral beliefs has to come into play as well. The importance of social psychologists cannot be downplayed or ignored. However, their theories and practices cover a broad spectrum of behaviour and topics. In order for social psychology to be useful in the legal field, it has to focus on legal matters. Hence, there should be a social psychology dedicated to legal issues in regards to the gathering of evidence and courtroom dynamics.

Also, incorporation of social psychology in the legal field can include detailed and systematic analysis and findings of specific gestures that will enable juries to tell if an eyewitness is saying the truth in court. Mannerisms will also indicate the reasons and motivations behind an eyewitness’ verbal discourse. When this happens, the jury can reach error-free decisions all the time. This will result in the decrease and quite possibly the elimination of wrongful convictions. In the end, accurate eyewitness testimonies will greatly improve our present legal system and make people trust in the court’s decision with absolute confidence.

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