Amelia Moores is a student in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE, studying BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science.
“You may read the verdict”
Imagine that you are standing trial for a crime that you did not commit and, even before your hearing begins, the jury has decided that you are guilty. This is the serious consequence that could have, or perhaps even has occurred, as a result of implicit bias in jurors.
Implicit bias refers to the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our understanding and decision-making in an unconscious manner. In today’s society, we are seeing an increase in this sort of bias as discrimination has taken on more concealed forms (Morrison & Kiss, 2017). In relation to jury duty, these kind of biases can unintentionally influence a verdict, putting into question the presumption of innocence.
In the judicial system itself there are various procedures to ensure this principle holds. In the process of jury selection, jurors can be dismissed if their beliefs, attitudes, character traits or personal experiences mean that they cannot be impartial. This may be because they are a close friend of the witness, the judge or one of the attorneys. However, due to the hidden nature of implicit biases, they can be harder to identify. This process of selection can only control for explicit biases. This demonstrates that a different measurement for implicit biases is needed.
Identifying implicit bias
The Implicit Association Test (IAT), (introduced by Greenwald, McGhee & Schwartz 1998) measures the associations between two mental representations. The greater the association between, for example, gender and career choice, the shorter the reaction time will be to associate them. Jurors may have implicit biases including class, race, and gender and these could be identified with this method, particularly where they may influence a verdict.
Levinson, Cai & Young (2009) created their own IAT to specifically explore whether implicit racial biases could affect jury verdicts in racially biased ways. This involved asking sixty six jury-eligible students from the University of Hawaii to test several measures. These included measuring implicit bias, such as an IAT measuring the association between skin colour and guilt and another measuring the association between skin colour and pleasant words. The researchers also measured explicit bias using the modern racism scale, which assesses white Americans’ covert racial attitudes towards black Americans, and a feeling thermometer that measures participants’ feelings towards a certain group (in this study: African Americans).
The study also involved a robbery evaluation task, where participants were asked to read a story of a robbery and then were shown a series of photos in which they were either primed with a dark or light skinned perpetrator. Participants were then asked to score each item of evidence on the extent to which it indicated the individual’s guilt, as well as a final decision on how guilty or not guilty the defendant is on a scale.
The findings showed that participants expressed a significant association between black people and guilt, as well as an association between black people and unpleasant words. It was also found that people who demonstrated greater implicit bias in these tests reported more positive explicit attitudes towards African Americans. Furthermore, in relation to the effect of this on jury decision-making, having stronger implicit associations meant that judgements of ambiguous evidence were seen as more indicative of guilt.
The presumption of innocence?
Whilst this study only explores implicit racial bias, it demonstrates the effect that implicit biases can generally have on jury decision-making and the principle of the presumption of innocence. It also demonstrates how different an individual’s implicit and explicit attitudes can be, and therefore demonstrates the importance of identifying these biases in jurors, since they are tasked with determining a person’s innocence or guilt.
There is further supporting research on the effect of implicit bias on evidence evaluation (Levinson & Young, 2010), as well as evidence that these biases affect other areas of jury decision-making. For example, being primed with a certain ethnicity can cause individuals to unknowingly misremember case facts (Levinson, 2007), and also the gender of the lawyer can affect how competent the jurors perceive him or her to be, having potentially negative consequences for the client (Hahn & Clayton, 1996).
Tackling implicit bias
The little research that has been done into this area has primarily been conducted in a controlled setting with a focus on the American judicial system. Therefore, more research needs to be done in multiple jury-specific settings with more exploration into other judicial systems and other types of implicit biases. Moreover, simply identifying that these implicit biases exist and influence this type of decision-making is only part of the solution. Interventions also need to be put in place to try and solve this problem.
Some interventions suggest using techniques to identify the implicit biases that an individual may have during the jury selection process and then dismiss them if these biases will affect their ability to be impartial, as is done with explicit biases. However, the current measures used to identify these implicit biases, such as IATs, can only really provide useful information about people in general, rather than provide individual assessments (Kang et al., 2012). Therefore, a new measure that can carry out this individual assessment needs to be developed before this method can be used.
Other interventions suggest techniques in which these implicit biases could be reduced to a point where they may not affect impartiality. Whilst this area is limited and has only been tested in a specific setting rather than at a societal level, the interventions that have been studied have been shown to reduce implicit bias and its negative effects, at least temporarily. For example, through direct contact (Vezzali & Giovannini, 2010), or simply imagining contact (Turner & Crisp, 2010), with the group to which you hold the bias, as well as being exposed to a positive, counter-stereotypical example of the implicit bias you hold (Plant et al., 2009).
However, once again, such interventions have only been shown to be effective in these specific settings, and thus further research is needed to determine whether these would work in a courtroom setting. This research will help to reduce the biases that influence such crucial decision-making and try to achieve the impartiality that is such a vital part of the judicial system.
- This blog post expresses the views of its author(s), not the position of The Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science or the London School of Economics.
- This blog post was originally written as part of PB101: Foundations of Psychological Science, a compulsory course on the BSc Psychological and Behavioural Science programme in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE. It has been published with the permission of the author. Visit the PBS website for more information on studying in the department: https://www.lse.ac.uk/PBS/Study.
- Featured image by Mitchel Lensink via Unsplash.