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Psychology Revision

Juries consist of twelve people, and often their verdicts of guilt or innocence aren’t unanimous. In this case, the view of the majority can greatly influence the minority in reaching a verdict. In a study conducted by Asch – though not originally a forensic study – he aimed to show how the views of the minority can be altered by the majority, even when presented with an unambiguous task. The task consisted of line X and comparison lines A, B and C and the five participants (all confederates except one) had to identify which of the lines A, B or C was the same length as line X. The confederates were told to deliberately and consistently choose the wrong line. The confederates collectively made the single participant conform on 32% of the tasks. This data drops to just 5% if the majority is not consistent in their beliefs that the wrong line is the right line.

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This data shows how, if a majority is confident and persistent in their beliefs, they can influence the decisions of the minority. Even though it was not originally a forensic study, Asch’s study on majority influence showed how some members of the jury may sway towards the opinions of the majority in order to avoid alienation from the social majority; they would rather conform than be stuck at odds with them. Q1)b) Evaluate the application of research into what influences a verdict in court. (15)

There are many ways in which research into courtroom verdicts can be influenced by surreptitious means, including the use of majority influence, perceived autonomy and primacy effects. Majority influence, studied by Asch, proved how the majority voice can overpower the minority via use of consistent and confident delivery of beliefs. This, whist never originally a forensic study, can be generalised to courtroom behaviour as the participants used in Asch’s study were strangers that had never met, which reflects the reality of real juries, so it can be considered that the behaviour monitored in the study is similar to what would be observed in a jury.

The study was very simplistic and required very little equipment, meaning the cross-cultural replications of the study are available and can increase reliability. However, the study really only pertains to countries or jurisdictions that use the adversarial system of justice in their courtroom; if the courtroom uses an inquisitorial system, then there is no need for a jury and majority influence has no effect.

Another influence on verdicts is perceived autonomy, studied be Nemeth & Watchler. These psychologists aimed to show how an autonomous character has greater influence over someone who is not perceived so. This study can be applied to courtroom behaviour because the jury sit at a table in the deliberating room to come to a verdict. If a member of the jury elects to sit themselves at the head of the table, there is a subliminal belief amongst the other jurors that he/she is autonomous and therefore a more reliable source of information.

There are limitations to the extent to which Nemeth & Watchler’s study should be considered valid evidence though, as they only used five participants, which is not reflective of the real juries’ twelve members. Also, the jurors made their decisions about the compensation of an injured river individually, rather than as a group, limiting the ecological validity. A further influence on courtroom verdicts is primacy effects.

Studied by Pennington, who then went on to study the effect of Story Order (chronological) vs. Witness Order, primacy effects were said to influence the jury’s decision in favour of the prosecution because it is the information that is heard first, as opposed to the defence which is heard last. Primacy effects dominate recency effects, and thus the study can be applied to courtroom behaviour because some court cases are very longwinded and go on for months, meaning by the end the attention of the jurors is less active than at the start, and they may miss important pieces of evidence in favour of the defendant. These influences can lower the accuracy of the jury’s verdicts, but they are always present in courtroom and special measures need to be taken in order to cancel them out, though it is not always possible.

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