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ABF Research Considers How Psychological Blame Affects Judgment in Criminal Cases

May 1, 2013, ABF news

The purpose of a criminal trial is to determine whether a person committed a criminal offense, not whether a person is good or bad generally. The logic of criminal blame involves a carefully calculated judgment about the act, the actor's mental state, and the harmful outcome. Psychological blame, on the other hand, is often intuitive and automatic, driven by a natural impulsive desire to defend social values and expectations.

Research by ABF Research Professor Janice Nadler shows that people unconsciously impose an extra penalty on an offender who is perceived as a bad person. "Blaming as a Social Process: The Influence of Character and Moral Emotion on Blame," published in Duke University's Journal of Law and Contemporary Problems (Volume 75, Number 2) is based on experimental simulations with 194 participants in an online survey.  Her main findings are:

  • If the skier was perceived as a lazy son and unreliable worker, people imposed a greater punishment than if he was hardworking and reliable off the slopes.

  • The skier's flawed character not only prompted imposition of extra punishment but also inspired a stronger perception of intent as well as more intense moral emotions like disgust and anger.

  • Surprisingly, stronger perceptions of intent and intense emotions only emerged when people judged just one version of the skier-either the bad person or the good person. By contrast, when people were asked to consider both possibilities, they did not impose any extra punishment on the skier with the bad character. This suggests that the process of imposing an extra blame penalty for bad character operates on a level beneath conscious awareness.

The impulse to enhance blame and punishment based on general character flaws poses a problem in criminal trials, where jurors are instructed to make a decision about guilt based solely on the evidence rather on their impressions of the defendant's personality or likability. As author Janice Nadler observed, "This research suggests that seemingly innocuous information about a criminal defendant, such as whether he is an unreliable worker or an apathetic son, can insidiously communicate implications about blameworthiness and guilt. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit attorneys from making public statements that might prejudice a fair trial."

At the same time, these rules explicitly permit prosecutors to release "the identity, residence, occupation and family status of the accused." For some defendants, even this information can carry negative implications. Thus, news reports describing the defendant as "a local drifter" or "unemployed and divorced" might contribute to inferences about blameworthiness in guilt in a manner that was not anticipated by the drafters of the Model Rules.

Janice Nadler is Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation, and Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law. Her scholarly interests lie at the intersection of law and psychology, and her research focuses on social norms, compliance with the law, perceptions of injustice, negotiation, and dispute resolution.

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