Forensics in Focus -Bias in Jury Decision Making; How does an accent infer guilt?

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Unconscious Decision Making; Your mind is already working on another possibility.

“Whether you’re navigating a route to work or browsing produce at the grocery store, our brains are constantly making decisions about movement,” Dr. Gallivan says. “Even outside your conscious awareness, your motor system appears to always be operating in the background, coming up with potential actions. Should I reach for the red or green apple? When should I cross the street?”


A study conducted by Queen’s University researchers how identified that the mind is constantly appraising a range of actions before making a decision.  The brain’s motor neurons are constantly preparing for a multitude of potential actions to take before making its final decision.

This form of parallel processing has key implications for the notion of the programming of artificial intelligence and in particular the models of decision making replicating the human mind.

The research also raises similar questions to the multiverse theory in physics, which identifies a number of possible simultaneous universes all co-existing not within sight of each other.

  • The patchwork multiverse is hard to avoid – if our Universe really is infinite and uniform.
  • The inflationary multiverse is rather likely if inflationary theory is true, and right now inflation is our best explanation for the Big Bang.
  • Cosmic natural selection is an ingenious idea but involves speculative physics, and there are a lot of unanswered questions.
  • Brane worlds are far more speculative, because they can only exist if all those extra dimensions do, and there is no direct evidence of that.
  • The quantum multiverse is arguably the simplest interpretation of quantum theory, but it is also vaguely defined and leads to an incoherent view of selfhood.


Forensics in Focus; How reliable is fingerprint analysis?

The assumption of fingerprint evidence in criminal investigations; All fingerprints are unique to a singular individual, even identical monozygotic twins have different prints.

Scientific evidence to support this claim; Nil.


Well, what assumptions should we make?  Mike Silverman, who introduced the first automated fingerprint detection system to the Metropolitan Police who was the Home Office’s first Forensic Science Regulator, states:

“Essentially you can’t prove that no two fingerprints are the same. It’s improbable, but so is winning the lottery, and people do that every week.  No two fingerprints are ever exactly alike in every detail, even two impressions recorded immediately after each other from the same finger.  It requires an expert examiner to determine whether a print taken from crime scene and one taken from a subject are likely to have originated from the same finger.”

                                        Telegraph (2004) Why your fingerprints may not be unique

U.S Citizen Brandon Mayfield was arrested as a material witness to the horrific Madrid bombings in 2004.  Held for over a fortnight based on the fact that his fingerprint had been ‘100% matched’ to a bag associated with the bombing containing detonation material.  For over 100 years the notion of fingerprints has been the cornerstone of forensic evidence, objective and irrefutable, certainly compared to the well-documented unreliability of eye-witness testimony.   In a case that shook all the assumptions made about the credibility of analysis was revealed.  Mayfield was released when it came to light that another suspect, Daoud, matched the fingerprints.  How could they both be a 100% match?

The Mayfield print was, in fact, not a 100% match as the FBI had claimed and his arrest was thought to be influenced by other factors, in particular, his religious beliefs were thought to have him placed at the top of a list of 20 other similar prints.  This bias led to a false positive.  In such a high-profile case were the F.B.I guilty of jumping the gun and accusing an innocent man based upon poorly collected and analysis.  Their subsequent public apology and $2million  settlement to Mayfield suggests just that.


                                                                                                           U. S. Department of Justice Office 

What other forms of bias may be involved in fingerprint analysis?

So what did the F.B.I mean ‘circular reasoning’?  Researchers such as Itiel Dror and Dave Charlton has conducted some of the most influential research investigating such examples of cognitive bias in fingerprint analysis.

Dror stated in an article in the Guardian about his research,

“I wanted to see if it is as objective and scientific as it claims to be,” he said. “I wanted to see if the same expert would make the same decision on the same fingerprint if it is presented in a different context.” He presented six fingerprint experts from various countries including the UK, the US and Australia with eight marks from crime scenes (called latent prints) and eight inked marks from suspects. The experts, who had 35 years experience between them, had all given judgments on the pairs of prints in previous court cases – four as matches and four as exclusions.

But Professor Dror engineered the experiment so that none of them knew they were participating in a study, something that he says makes the study much more powerful. “If people know they are studying them they behave differently, especially if you are studying errors,” he said.

Of the 48 tests, the experts changed their decision in six cases and only two of the experts were consistent with their previous decision in all of their eight cases. They were more likely to change their decision if given contextual information, such as “the suspect has confessed”, that conflicted with their previous judgment.

“The same expert on the same fingerprint can make totally conflicting decisions, depending on the context,” said Dr Dror, who presented his results at the British Psychological Society’s annual meeting in York.

Some of Dror’s research (2005) had also investigated how an emotional context may influence decision making.  When testing students he found there was some effect on ambiguous prints from top-down manipulations, however, would this been observed in actual fingerprint analysts in the same way?  Research by Hall and Player in 2008 went on to investigate the extent to which high and low emotional contexts could possibly influence the decision-making process, lessons quite possibly from the Mayfield case, however, this time in full laboratory experimental conditions.  Providing low-level emotional context (case notes of a forgery) compared to a high-level emotional context (case notes regarding a murder) accompanying the fingerprints.  Volunteer analysts were found to be affected by the high emotional context but not so much that their decisions were significantly affected.


Hall and Player concluded fingerprint experts appear adept at dealing with fingerprint analysis in a non-emotional, detached manner. There may be motivating factors and bias in the collection and processing of forensic evidence.


Should case notes be provided to analysts if there is an outside chance they might be even unconsciously influenced by the emotional nature of more horrific crimes such as murder and rape?  What does it add or more likely detract to the decision-making process or is it just a leftover from historic procedures when such questions never were asked due to the assumption that a fingerprint was either a match or it wasn’t.  Where ambiguity from a smudged print was possibly ignored or not brought up in court.  Should a number of ‘filler prints’ be given to analysts to ensure a ‘single blind’ methodology to reduce bias, in the same way in a Police Line-up there are multiple possible choices of comparison?

Talking to New Scientist, Simon Cole, a critic of fingerprint evidence at the University of California, Irvine argues a solution might be for each forensics lab to have an independent official who distributes evidence anonymously to the forensic scientists. This would help to rule out any external case-related influences by forcing the scientists to work in isolation, knowing no more about each case than is necessary. At the moment fingerprint examiners asked to verify decisions made by their colleagues do not receive the evidence “blind”. They already know the decision colleagues have made.

Paul Chamberlain, a fingerprint examiner with the UK Forensic Science Service who has more than 23 years experience, says: “The FSS was aware of the need for a more robust scientific approach for fingerprint comparison.” But he questions the relevance of the expert study (Dror, 2005). “The bias is unusual and it is, in effect, an artificial scenario,” he says.

Further Reading

Charlton. D.  (2010) Emotional Experiences and Motivating Factors Associated with Fingerprint Analysis.  Journal of Forensic Science V55 issue 10 Wiley  (Abstract only)

Dror. I (2005) When emotions get the better of us: the effect of contextual top-down processing on matching fingerprints.  Applied Cognitive Psychology V 19 Issue 6 Wiley (Abstract only)

New Scientist Article  (2005)  How far should fingerprints be trusted?

Barnes. J.  The History of Fingerprint analysis 

Components for comparison Quizlet.

Hall and Player research Quizlet

Evaluation of Hall and Player Quizlet

Massive Open Online Courses

MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses run via distance learning and are completely web based.  They are usually free to complete and are offered by some of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world such as MIT, Univeristy of California Berkley and Stanford University.

Any cost involved usually occurs if a person wishes to receive certification for completing the course, however, this is not usually a necessity  making completing the course free.

Here are some general  links to sites offering a range of MOOCs;

Here are some Psychology based ones.

A new era of the Gene Jeanie…..

Has the Nature Vs Nurture debate finally been settled in regards to Schizophrenia?   In 2016 mainstream national newspapers ran the story;

‘Schizophrenia breakthrough as genetic study reveals link to brain changes’

CaptureCapture 1

The  original journal article (Sekar, 2016) the headline relates to proposed that ‘synaptic pruning’ occurs at pivotal points in development, however, excessive pruning during adolescence are matched to the symptoms experienced by Schizophrenics.  The regulation of an individual’s synaptic pruning  is specifically related to the gene ‘complement component 4‘ referred commonly to as ‘C4’.

It has long believed that Schizophrenia had an innate component, however, the  difficulty in systematically testing the impact of the environment meant clear conclusions have always been difficult to draw.  The  Diathesis-Stress Theory suggest that Schizophrenia could be caused by a biological vulnerability (diathesis) triggered by environmental factors (stress).


Gottesman and Shields (1972) classic study  attempted to pull research in the area together, by analysing a range of adoption and  twin studies including dizygotic (non-identical) and the rarer monozygotic (identical) twins, which only occur 3 in every 1000 live deliveries worldwide.  All adoption studies found an increased incidence of schizophrenia in adopted children with a schizophrenic biological parent. Kety (who was also known for his critique of Rosenhan’s study) found that biological siblings of children with schizophrenia showed a much higher percentage of schizophrenia. All twin studies found a higher concordance rate for schizophrenia in monozygotic (MZ) than dizygotic (DZ) twins.  In Gottesman and Shield’s own study the rate was 58% for identical twins, and 12% for non-identical twins.  The research was strongly suggestive of the genetic influence even back then, however, only took a reductionist biological view, largely ignoring the diathesis-stress model even though the results seem to support it. 

Is the genie finally out of the bottle?

The current Sekar 2016 research is an exciting development in answering the questions of the biological cause of schizophrenia as well as how an effective treatment may be developed. Watch this space….

Further reading

An article discussing a wide range of twin and adoption studies investigating Schizophrenia. 



Evolution calling….aquatic apes and religious chimps…..


Atavism is a term to describe usually biological attributes which have no modern day function but are still if only partially, present as so-called ‘evolutionary throwbacks’.

These ” traits  such as ear wiggling, the appendix, the tail bone and even the ‘goosebump‘ response are all examples of such historical atavistic mechanisms that give us an insight into our past…..

But what about behaviour? To what extent are our current behavioural responses’atavistic’? How much of our ‘instinctual behaviours’ determined from our evolutionary past? The stress response is one of the most researched in terms of the ‘fight or flight‘ response, but how much more of our behaviour is influenced by such factors?


Mammalian Diving Reflex

The mammalian diving reflex allows humans, although more prominently in young children and even babies, to hold their breath underwater for long periods of time (compared to above water).  When the face feels cold water (below 21 degrees), there is an involuntary physiological response from the body to reduce oxygen consumption as a survival mechanism.  The heart slows, blood flow is reduced to the hands and feet and at even greater depths the lungs are allowed to flood to help equalise pressure to increase survival.


The mammalian diving reflex has caused some to examine the aquatic ape hypothesis, which says that the common ancestors of modern humans spent time adapting to life underwater. The hypothesis is based on the differences between humans and other great apes, and similarities between humans and some aquatic mammals. The theory uses many human functions to support the claims including hair loss, hair location, the subcutaneous fat on babies, the descended larynx, the hooded nose, voluntary breath control, the waxy coating on newborns, and the mammalian diving reflex.                                                                                                                    

The rise of religion in Chimpanzees

Recent footage released of chimps exhibiting what is described as ‘bizarre behaviour’ (throwing rocks at trees),  have been used to attempt to explain ritualistic behaviour in early humans that may have developed into religious activity.

This represents the first record of repeated observations of individual chimpanzees exhibiting stone tool use for a purpose other than extractive foraging at what appear to be targeted trees,” the researchers write in their abstract.

“The ritualised behavioural display and collection of artefacts at particular locations observed in chimpanzee accumulative stone throwing may have implications for the inferences that can be drawn from archaeological stone assemblages and the origins of ritual sites.

Cited from an article in the Independent  by Andrew Griffin Friday 4 March 2016

The work of Desmond Morris

Desmond Morris  explored  questions regarding the evolutionary aspects of humanity and more in his books and documentaries spanning the last decades of the twentieth century.

“Everywhere I go, I’m struck by how similar human beings are to one another in all important respects. Of course, there are many superficial differences and these are often so impressive that we pay too much attention to them and start treating one another as if we belong to different species — with disastrous results. But despite all our variations in costume, ritual and belief, biologically we’re all astonishingly close to one another — a fact that I find very reassuring.” ~ Desmond Morris

Further reading

Is Psychology a Science?

‘Science’ as defined by the Science Council in 2009 is,

the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.’

This definition embraces a diverse range of subject matter including thermodynamics, ecology, cognitive psychology and biochemistry. Psychology sits within the domain of social science researching patterns in the social world and therefore, on the face of it seems to fit squarely within the above definition.


The Science Council’s definition of, following asystematic methodology’ based upon evidence,  is inextricably linked with the scientific method, primarily laboratory experimentation.


‘Scientific methodology’ needs to be objective and therefore;

  • Replicable –research results needs to be testable and therefore, reliable usually obtained through a set of highly standardised controls. Read an article on how this affects recent psychological research.
  • Falsifiable  -a Hypothesis/Theory must be able to be proven as false.  Although falsifiability can suffer from the Raven Paradox.
  • Precise – Accomplished through explicit operationalisation, this can be measured quantifiably,  for example, by the spread of data around the mean.
  • Parsimonious (also known as Ockham’s Razor) -the simplest explanation is usually the right one’.

The ‘Yes’ Argument

Psychology has certainly exhibited many examples from decades of research a significant body of evidence utilising the scientific process, Physiological Psychology, Developmental and Behaviourism all have peer reviewed journals with over 100 years of history.

Some examples of the application of psychological research;

  1. Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behaviour. It is both a thriving academic discipline and a vital professional practice.
  2. British psychological research was fundamental in challenging the view that autism resulted from poor parenting and has given us clearer understanding of autism and led to more appropriate care and support systems (Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith, 1985).
  3. A British psychologist, C.S. Myers, introduced the term ‘shell-shock’ during World War One. This condition is now widely known as post-traumatic stress disorder (Myers, 1915).
  4. British psychological research has contributed to our understanding of how to encourage people to participate in recycling schemes (Nigbur, Uzzell, Lyons & Muckle, 2005).
  5. Many manufacturers of children’s buggies and pushchairs are now selling more rear-facing designs following psychological research showing the importance parent-child communication helps in relieving infant stress (Zeedyk, 2008).
  6. Research by British psychologists on aircraft cockpit design has led to a reduction in air accidents (Craik, 1940).
  7. The design of British coins was based upon psychological research into which shapes are easiest for blind people to identify (Bruce et al., 1983; Bruce & Hellawell, 1988).
  8. Psychological research on interviewing has led to the use of video recordings of child witnesses in court (Davies et al., 1995).
  9. Psychological research on the accuracy of eye witness testimony has led to changes in the way evidence is obtained and used (Gudjonsson, 2003; Holliday et al., 2008; Loftus, 2005)
  10. Psychological research on how to communicate information the benefits and side effects of medicines to patients has led to significant changes in the wording on their packaging (Berry, 2006; Berry et al., 2002, 2003, 2006).

Source; The British Psychological Society

The ‘No’ Argument

Kuhn argued without an agreed set of assumptions or framework  (a unified paradigm) even with a scientific methodology, a subject, such as psychology, can only be defined as a prescience.   It is thought eventually, one set of assumptions e.g Physiological Psychology dominates and unifies the subject evolving into ‘normal science’.


However, Sigmund Koch commented;

The 19th-century belief that psychology can be an integral discipline, which led to its institutionalisation as an independent science, has been disconfirmed on every day of the 112 years since its presumptive founding. When the details of that history are attended to, the patent tendency has been toward theoretical and substantial fractionation (and increasing insularity among the “specialities”), not toward integration. Moreover, there are many principled considerations that underline the futility of seeking theoretical, conceptual or even paradigmatic unification. Sigmund Koch (1993, p. 902)

An article from the Guardian discussed the problems with psychological research as a whole that contributed to the labelling of psychology as a stagnating, non-scientific discipline.

Psychology as a Pseudoscience?

Pseudoscience, making scientific causal claims but not using a systematic methodology, sometimes can be difficult to distinguish.  Well known pseudoscientific claims include, ancient astronauts,  numerology, polygraphy, psychoanalysis, homoeopathy, and noetics.  Psychology has in its history elements of pseudoscience, Psychoanalysis being the most prevalent. It doesn’t help that the one person most associated  with Psychology also has received the greatest criticism from all sides, as being unfalsifiable, subjective and non-scientific as Sigmund Freud. 

So what’s the, or more accurately ‘an’, answer……

Psychology has in its relatively short history contained elements of a highly scientific methodology but without a shared paradigm and is still viewed by the physical sciences very much as pseudoscience, however, this is arguably largely based upon a misunderstanding of the breadth of psychological theory.  There is certainly some research in the field that qualifies as science, however, this gets easily lost by the myriad of research that falls under the remit of bad science/pseudoscience.  Psychology has many problems to overcome if it wants to be viewed as a ‘hard science’.  The biggest is probably the lack of a unified paradigm as the different perspectives and approaches in psychology seem to becoming more polarised rather than merging towards a common set of assumptions.  Many of the approaches also still use methodologies that leave themselves open to overt criticism.

However, arguably Psychology’s greatest weakness is also it’s greatest strength.  A holistic view, whilst fundamentally unscientific, offers a fuller range of explanations and ways of describing the human experience beyond the objective, irrespective  of its lack of replicability. Until science has the tools to measure the range of micro to macro experiences, psychology will invariably fall short of the defining qualities of science. Psychology is barely into its second century of study and is certainly showing a lack of maturity compared to the ‘hard sciences‘.  However, even in these embryonic stages, it is an exciting developing discipline which has much to offer the wider community even it if does suffer from ‘physics envy‘. Asking if Psychology is a science? is and will continue to be a matter of debate and some may argue it is even the wrong question.

However, in the words of Emeritus Professor Philip Zimbardo;

Does psychology matter? Can psychological research, theory, methods, and practice make a significant difference in the lives of individuals, communities, and nations? Do we psychologists have a legacy of which we can be proud? Can we do more and better research that has significant applicable effects in the real world? Are we ready now “to give psychology away to the public” in useful, accessible ways? And finally, can we learn how better to collaborate with the media, with technology experts, with community leaders, and with other medical and behavioural scientists for psychology to make an even more significant difference in the coming decade? My final answer is simply YES, YES indeed! May the positive forces of psychology be with you, and with our society.

Further reading. 


The McGurk effect, “Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices”

Multimodal perception involves our senses working together to allow us to integrate information to provide an accurate representation of the world around us.  The senses did not evolve in isolation and therefore, work together to give us a rich and unified experience.  This integration is believed to occur in specific locations within the brain.


There are zones in the human brain where sensory information comes together and is integrated such as the Auditory, Visual and Motor Cortices. [Image: BruceBlaus]

The McGurk Effect.

So, hearing and visual cues work together when we are perceiving speech. When a person hears a different sound than what the visual information suggests it can cause a perceptual illusion, this is known as the ‘McGurk effect‘.  Watch the clip below, to see the effect in action although it is believed that not everybody is susceptible  to it.

When the senses conflict, depending on the stimulus being processed, one sense will override the other, in this case, our sight changes how we perceive what we hear being said.   This is an effect that, just because you are aware of it, doesn’t mean it can ‘manually overridden’, our knowledge of the process does not reduce its impact upon our sesnses.