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.

Placebo buttons are a pressing issue.

B.F Skinner demonstrated with operant conditioning using randomised food pellet delivery that is was possible to create ‘superstitions in pigeons‘.  The pigeon will link the delivery of the food pellet with its own behaviour, the flapping of a wing or a complete 360-degree turn, for example.  The superstition that somehow a ’cause and effect’ relationship occurred between behaviour (flapping)  and consequence (food), even when the behaviour was exhibited and the food pellet didn’t arrive the bird would be relentless in its flapping – a superstition is now fully embedded in the pigeons behaviour pattern.  A sense of control over the environment has been established, wrongly.

 But humans wouldn’t fall for such an obvious trick, would they?

Let’s take an example of an everyday occurrence, so insignificant that it hardly registers, until we stop to think about it.  The pedestrian crossing.  The eager pressing of the pedestrian crossing button to alert ‘the system’ that we are there are are wanting to cross the road.  Sometimes the lights seem to change on command where other times we still have to wait.  Press again and maybe again a bit harder this time, it must have not registered correctly.  Maybe go on to spin…the spinny thing… the base of the unit to let it know we mean business. Maybe you have tried the….. 3 Fast Clicks, 2 clicks, holding on the each of the two for at least 5 seconds, 1 fast, 2 held ones again, and then 3 fast clicks….trick.

Is this a friend or foe?

In Edinburgh between 50-60 of 300 junctions have crossings where the green man comes on automatically, while in Manchester 40 per cent of the buttons are placebos and don’t need to be pressed to stop the traffic at busy times.

Why is it so difficult to resist the pressing of the button….even if we are told absolutely not to…?

It’s not just the crossings that are lying to us…….

The benevolent deception’ is a study of how computer interfaces are designed with the same illusion of control.  Office temperature/thermostat controls can be another source of futile button pressing to give the perception of control. When you put your indicators on in the car, the clicking noise is generated electronically to mimic the old relays that use to generate the noise mechanically, another example of a machine producing signals with human comfort in mind.  Other similar examples include the shutter noise on a digital camera or the satisfying ‘clump’ of a car door closing.

Another controversial example is the ‘door close‘ button in  a lift.  Although the door always closes after 4 seconds, always, research has shown that it is perceived that the higher frequency number of times the button is pushed the quicker the door closes.  Results of one study can be seen below.


In the UK crossing timers are set on a 2-minute delay so this is the most you will ever have to wait as the same principle as above applies.

However all is not lost….as luck would have it you can increase your chances of influencing the light sequences where ever you come across them,  all you have to do is press the button below…..




Further reading




The Psychology of Magic….Would you wear Hitler’s jumper?


‘How was that done?’ the question we have all asked after witnessing a card trick or some other form of conjuring or illusion.  We know it isn’t actual magic and that the illusionist, conjurer or magician has somehow manipulated our assumptions of what is going on with the intention to produce the desired effect.  However  such processes of misdirection mixed with genuine skill can be truly mind-blowing!  Derren Brown, Dynamo, Penn and Teller and world famous in their ‘abilities’.

However can Psychology help us understand some of the key elements to our magical experiences and is the truth stranger than the  fiction?  How can Asch’s research or Loftus’ help us understand how the impact of the illusion can be heightened.

Listen to the episode of ‘All in the Mind’ to find out how Psychology helps us understand how some of these effects work.

The Psychology of Magical Thinking

Magical thinking is something slightly different. In 1890, the anthropologist JMagical thinking and superstitionames George Frazer described “magical” contagion, which seems to permeate societies around the world. Magical thinking is how we make false associations (or superstitions) that can form beliefs and impact the way we view our world and change our behaviour.  This can impact all areas of our thinking but one of the most observable is in the area of Health Psychology, in particular, Sympathetic magical beliefs of which there are two ‘laws’-  Contagion and Similarity. On of the strongest magical beliefs is that ‘everything happens for a reason‘.


The Law of Contagion –Would you wear  Hitler’s jumper?

The ‘Law of Contagion’ is an example of  magical thinking.  It is the belief once two objects or individuals have been in contact that a magical link persists between the two, in essence, once in contact, always in contact’.  Would you wear Hitler’s jumper? is a question posed by psychologist  Paul Rozin to allow people to test the strength of their own magical belief.  Many report a feeling of discomfort at the idea, worried that some essence of the previous owner may in some way contaminate them.   In health behaviour, magical thinking can relate to many situations, for example, individuals visiting someone with HIV or Cancer and them not wanting to shake hands or even use the same pen in fear of them becoming ‘infected’.

Thought Experiment; Would you be happy to drink recycled water?

However, these beliefs can produce powerful comfort in the objects once possessed by loved ones that something of them still remains and these possessions are often cited as those that are most precious to us.    Consider the ‘One ring‘ in Lord of the Rings or the ‘Horcruxes’ in Harry Potter, both set within the world of magic and fantasy yet reinforcing a belief that is very much observable in everyday life.


Comedian Richard Herring, grew a toothbrush moustache to attempt to break the strong association with Adolf Hitler. There is obviously nothing evil about the style of moustache, but would its association with Hitler still make the wearer less trustworthy, less honest or even evil, like the one ring would it have its own evil agenda?

The moustache made him so paranoid about what judgements people were making that he shaved it off after the first week.”As people passed they would start laughing about five yards behind me. A group of lads called me ‘Adolf’. I haven’t had any sense of anger but I think some people were intimidated or scared.”

“I thought that at any moment someone might smack me in the face. I was being judged by my appearance and being a white, middle-class man I’ve never looked to draw attention to myself before.

“I felt quite afraid and a bit upset. Then I wondered if I was upsetting anyone, and was it worth it if I had done.”

  BBC News

The Law of Similarity 

The Law of similarity suggests that two objects that resemble each other share the same fundamental properties.  Consider how a historic Malay custom, similar to that of a Voodoo doll, works which incorporates the fashioning of a doll in the image of an individual (similarity) incorporated with actual hair and fingernails of the person (contagion) which then is believed to hold the ‘essence’ of that person.

The APA published research in 2003 investigating how people can mistakenly claim authorship of occurrences–believing, for example, that they cause a disliked person’s headache when they prick a voodoo doll.

The law of similarity has two distinct notions, ‘like causes like’ which is the basis of homoeopathic medicine and ‘appearance causes reality’ the view that if something looks like something else that they share the same properties, is it rational to fear a picture of  shark, for example?

Rozin et al (86) conducted research on 50 subjects investigating variations of both the law of contagion and similarity.  He found people didn’t want to eat fudge that was presented like dog faeces (similarity),  and participants are less accurate at throwing darts at pictures of people they like. How about a participant labelling a bottle themselves with the word ‘cyanide’ and then showing great reluctance to drink water from it?  Rozin also tested whether particip[ants would drink from a vessel that had contained a dead ‘sterilised’ cockroach as it can be imagined the results were conclusive.

In regards to the recycled water question posed earlier, In the first series of studies, Rozinasked adults in five cities about their backgrounds, their political and personal views, and, most important, their view on the concept of “recycled water.” On average, everyone was uncomfortable with the idea—even when they were told that treated, recycled water is actually safer to drink than unfiltered tap water. That discomfort, Rozin found, was all about disgust. Twenty-six per cent of participants were so disgusted by the idea of toilet-to-tap that they even agreed with the statement, “It is impossible for recycled water to be treated to a high enough quality that I would want to use it.” They didn’t care what the safety data said. Their guts told them that the water would never be drinkable. It’s a phenomenon known as contagion, or, as Rozin describes it, “once in contact, always in contact.” By touching something we find disgusting, a previously neutral or even well-liked item can acquire—permanently—its properties of grossness. 


Watch the video on magical thinking to see how powerful an effect it can be.

Further Reading

Rozin P, Millman L and Nemeroff C (1986) Operation in Laws of Sympathetic Magic in Disgust and other domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 50 No 4 pp 703-712

Rozin, P and Nemeroff. (2002)  Sympathetic Magical Thinking:  The Contagion and Similarity Heuristics, The Psychology of Intuitive Judgement  pp 210-216

The weird sound of the brain……..

What actual happens when a new memory is formed? The brain  produces chemical changes to create the physical deposit of a memory. The physical trace of the memory is often referred to as an engram. Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains the chemical reactions that take place in the brain when making a memory. Click on the picture below to listen to the eerie sound of your brain creating a new memory……

science artistic colorful paint brain splatter mind colors 1920x1080 wallpaper_www.wall321.com_88

The Psychology of Decision Making in a Setting with Consequences.


A Jury’s decision at the end of a criminal case has been an established part of English law since 1168 when the first murder trial took place.   Benedict Graymond was tried and founder guilty for murder using a garden tool. How did the jury then and the ones that take place today come to their conclusion, is it a rational and considered analysis of the evidence culminating  in the majority decision, beyond reasonable doubt of a group of ordinary citizens (peers) or, are there key social cognitive elements influencing the final verdict that could be confounding? The answer is most likely a combination of both.

A key flaw into research investigating how juries reach a verdict, is the extent to which they are both reliable and ecologically valid.  The Royal Commission on Criminal Justice (1993) recommended that section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 should be amended to permit genuine academic research but this was not implemented. This law  prohibits any person to obtain, disclose or solicit any particulars of statements made, opinion expressed, argument advanced or vote cast by members of a jury in the course of their deliberations.  The discussion of the evidence of a case is therefore singularly considered by 12 individuals over the age of 18 and up to 70, making up the jury.

Hastie’s influential 1983 book investigated a range of issues relating to jury decision-making including the contents and dynamics of the deliberation process. Using primarily Mock trials, which is a close simulation of a full trial with all aspects replicated and observed however without the inevitable consequence of the jury’s decision the verdict, Hastie attempted to piece together the nuances of trial by jury.  The Mock Jury could be recorded, filmed, their interactions and discussions dissected and analysed  to identify the secrets of the decision-making process.   However, without any consequence to the decision, either guilty or not guilty the weight of that decision is purely academic. How is it possible to replicate the bias, unconscious or otherwise, the empathy with the victim or defendant and knowing your decision is contributing to possible life-altering or even life-threatening consequences?

Hastie identified a sequence that the jury goes through in terms of their interactions to come to a decision about the verdict;


In the U.K, the evidence of the case is presented and examined in front of a judge and jury  by the defence and prosecution in an adversarial  approach to justice, compared to the inquisitorial where it is the Judge that takes the active role and the presentation of a bias case is avoided.

The adversarial approach, therefore, allows for a degree of persuasion of either how to view the context of the evidence or the credibility of a witness.  There are many ways in which a barrister, may try to influence the jury many of which are well documented in psychology.  For example, Hovland’s Yale Model of Communication identifies a range of factors that increase rapport and influence to provide a more persuasive argument. The credibility of the source, the message itself, the medium in which the information is being given, who is the target audience and the formality of the situation are all key.  The model isn’t a specific forensic model as it is used widely in health and business situations, so is there any forensic research investigating methods of how the message is presented that can have a significant impact upon the verdict?

The Application of Cognitive Psychology in the Courtroom

Cognitive Psychology has long provided experimental evidence to support the view that information taken in at the beginning and end of a set of data tends to have the greatest level of recall.  This is known as the Primacy/Recency effect.  The serial position curve (below) shows where information tends to have the highest level of retention, based upon whether they have had enough rehearsal to be stored in the long-term memory or as in the case of the recency effect are still fresh in the short-term memory.  Below are the results of Murdock (1962) providing evidence to support this idea.


If this is applied to the order of which a barrister decides to place their witnesses to have the biggest impact it would follow to put their strongest witnesses at the beginning or end, irrespective of where they fit in the narrative of the crime. This technique to persuade the jury by manipulating the order that the witnesses are presented is called ‘Witness Order’.   The alternative method often employed is to keep the order of witnesses presented in court consistent with the order of the narrative or story of events, this is referred to as ‘Story Order‘.  Pennington and Hastie conducted a piece of research to investigate using a mock trial the effectiveness of the two approaches.  


The results showed a lack of construct validity for the impact of the primacy/recency effect in the context of ‘Witness Order’.  So why didn’t it work?  Murdock’s original study, like many memory based laboratory experiments, was based upon very simplistic single words whereas the complexity and nuances of content in a trial is vastly different.  The information is far too complex to simply be taken at face value of a over simplistic input, storage and retrieval model.  Pennington and Hastie discussed that jurors were likely to naturally reassemble the chronological order of events to give them the best opportunity of understanding them, into a schema or story and therefore the altering of the order just confused that process, especially when the alternative approach of ‘Story Order’ was based upon that idea.  What can we learn from Pennington and Hastie’s research?  The applied context seems to be clear; Story order is likely to be the most persuasive method of presenting witnesses in court and if the adversary is using witness approach – the impact will be all the greater.

The application of Social Psychology within the courtroom.

 One of the most well-known pieces of Social Psychology investigation the notion of conformity was conducted by Stanley Milgram’s mentor, Solomon E. Asch (1951).  Asch conducted a piece of research investigating the extent to which participants would change their response to a highly simple task on the basis that their answer would conform to that of the rest of the group, even if it was obviously incorrect.   Asch set up a situation where a group of men were given a simple line comparison task to complete, with each in turn speaking out their answer.  Simple.


Asch manipulated the situation by ensuring only one person in the room was a naive participant whilst everyone else was part of the research, a confederate, a stooge of Asch’s.  Would someone really knowingly give an incorrect response to ensure they didn’t go against the majority view?  If it does happen then this may have major consequences for the reliability of jury decision making.

On average 1/3 of participants changed their response as a result of majority influence.  This effect dramatically reduced when 1 other person gave a different answer -it seems, in the laboratory at least, you only need 1 ally to have the courage of your convictions.

However, once again we have the consequence issue, Asch’s research was done in a very artificial environment completing an artificial task, how much confidence can Forensic Psychologists have in the role of majority influence changing decisions in an actual jury deliberation.  Again ‘mock juries’ can provide some insight in terms of  the impact of a complex task in addition to a formal setting but we are still without those all important consequences of the decision and thus ecological validity.

The influence of the Minority on the Jury

Nemeth and Wachtler were interested in another area of social influence, that of minority infleunce.   Could the consistent and seemingly autonomous, (acting out on one’s own decisions) persuade the wider group to come to one person’s view?  The famous courtroom drama ‘12 Angry men‘, used this idea as a plot to show how a single voice could win over the many.  Review Nemeth’s research below- do you think it could occur outside of an experiment and a film?

Many psychologists take the view that it is indeed the small dissenting voices that over time can shift the views of many and society’s views.  The Suffragette movement could be one example of an initially minority view being accepted by the mainstream and changing the law.  When you think about it there have been many shifts in societies views that were once the view of the few.

The role of Attractiveness influencing the jury’s decision.

Edward Thorndike coined the term ‘Halo Effect‘ to describe The Constant Error in Psychological Ratings’.  A form of bias that  seduces and individual of having their perception of someone shaped by a single characteristic usually typically their attractiveness, (The ‘Horns effect’ is the opposite paradigm).  Are we so superficial as to be taken in by someone just because of the way we look?  Watch the video to take a look at how it works.

Castellow  decided to investigate how attractiveness might influence a jury. Castellow Capturefound that there was a statistically significant difference between how jurors viewed attractive vs unattractive defendants.  Attractive defendants were found guilty in 56% of cases where it was 76% for the unattractive ones. This research and many like it has confirmed this finding, however again only mock trials could be used reducing the ecological validity. However, it can be said that a defendant may want to ensure they are perceived in the best possible light by the Court by providing a smart appearance. The evidence could also be argued to support Lombroso’s view of the criminal man.  Is there a downside to being attractive?  Some new thinking and research in the area may shed doubt on the universal appeal of the halo effect.

Confidence as a variable for persuading the jury.

‘You can be 100% confident and 100% wrong……’

                                                                                                                                                        Penrod and Cutler

A consistent and autonomous approach has been seen to  persuade a majority to a new way of thinking (Nemeth), so it follows that an individual  who is confident may also excerpt a similar degree of influence.   Penrod anconfidenced Cutler conducted research manipulating a range of  factors to measure their impact on a jury.  Using a sample of undergraduates, eligible and experienced jurors, Penrod et al showed a videotaped trial of a robbery was shown in which eyewitness identification played a key role.  The witness testified that she was either 80% or 100% confident that she had correctly identified the robber. There were nine other variables all at both high and low levels, depending on the conditions. The participants experienced either the high or low condition variables on a random basis and were asked to decide whether the robber was guilty or not guilty after watching the film.  Witness confidence was the only statistically significant variable. The evidence in this field is consistent in showing that confidence is a poor predictor of witness accuracy. Furthermore, the trust that jurors place in the confidence of the witness is undiminished even if the judge advised the jury to be wary of it.

Reactance Theory and The Backfire Effect in the Courtroom

The notion of free will is still a matter of huge debate in Psychology.  As many approaches (Social, Cognitive etc369f0deae91a0faec4ed291c760fdeec.) are trying to provide singular  deterministic factors establishing cause and effect however without a unifying paradigm, the discipline will always be fragmented.   Maybe free will is one of the missing elements that would contribute to a more unified psychology?

Reactance theory, Brehm (1968), suggests that when someone’s notion of freedom to choose a specific course of action is threatened this motivates them to actually be more likely to exhibit that behaviour, to reassert their free will as a form of reactance.  When we are vigorously told not to do something this motivates us to actually do it.  Pennebaker and Sanders (1976) put one of two signs on University bathroom walls. One read ‘Do not write on these walls under any circumstances’ whilst the other read, ‘Please don’t write on these walls.’ A couple of weeks later, the walls with the ‘Do not write on these walls under any circumstances’ notice had far more graffiti on them.  This is often also referred to as the ‘backfire effect‘, the notion that someone is trying to persuade someone else so much and it backfire’s as they do the opposite.

Pickel (1995)  applied this to a court setting.  Could Barristers manipulate/persuade the jury into having a reactance against the judge?  In court, there are some types of evidence that are not allowed, due to being collected illegally (such as wire taps), or  it is unreliable such as polygraph results?  What if, for example, the prosecution introduces evidence that they know is ‘inadmissible‘  knowing that the Judge will have to tell the jury to ignore it?  This may then motivate at least some of the jury members to react against the Judge’s orders of ‘not taking any notice of the evidence’ and actually  persuading them otherwise. In Pickel’s research participants listened to an audiotape of the trial, which contained a piece of critical evidence. The critical evidence was information about a prior conviction of the defendant’s, which therefore, favoured the prosecution team and would have been inadmissible.   The critical piece of evidence was a prior conviction of the defendant. The item was objected to by the attorney of the defence team. The conditions varied at this point, some participants would hear the judge allow the evidence and the others would hear it disallowed.


When the jurors were instructed to ignore the inadmissible evidence this ruling was sometimes supported with a legal explanation. The judge would express that the evidence should be disregarded as it might be suggestive of bad character and bias the jury members.  In one of the conditions no legal explanation was given when the evidence was ruled as inadmissible.

Participants were then asked to complete a questionnaire asking them to make several decisions about the case:

  1. Verdict: Guilty or not guilty
  2. Estimate the probable guilt of the defendant
  3. State how much the knowledge of the prior conviction caused them to believe the defendant was guilty on a scale of 1 to 10.
  4. Give a rating of the credibility of each witness.

Calling attention to inadmissible evidence makes it more important to the jury and they pay more attention to it. This has some real life application as it is a tactic that could be used by prosecution and defence to draw attention to specific pieces of evidence, which may confound upon the juror’s verdict despite being ruled as inadmissible.

Once again, a lack of ecological validity via a mock trial impacts on the usefulness of the findings,

The right to a fair trial – Does the use of shields in Court  give an unfair advantage?

The has been huge steps over the past 30 years to ensure that children as witnesses receive special attention in terms of their testimony.  The Cognitive Interview has ben a useful methodology in ensuring the testimony of many51juxeuWwSL
witnesses, young and old, is gathered reliably and without bias. The Memorandum of Good Practice (1992)  provides a range of techniques and methods to ensure that a child can provide a coherent testimony.   This is important as Psychologists  have identified how the testimony needs to be perceived as credible by the jury if it is to be believed.  This is defined as; Credibility Inflation: when the child’s testimony is more believable, because they are not so distressed and can answer questions in a confident way.  Credibility Deflation: when the child’s testimony is seen as unreliable, because they are distant and needing special support.  Such methods of support could be a shield to provide a physical block between witness/victim and defendant, another method is to provide a video link to another part of the court, to again allow a reduction in anxiety of the witness.  Does this imply guilt? Does this bias the jury to a viewpoint that the defendant is so dangerous that physical barriers are required to ensure everyone’s safety, thus confounding the right to a fair trial.

Ross et al 1994, conducted research investigating the impact of both shields and videotapes, using a mock trail. They found no significant difference in the percentage of convictions. The control group received 51% guilty verdicts, The Shield46% and Video49% a nominal variation of 5% between all condition. The findings show no significant difference across the conditions a guilty verdict was slightly more common in open court and slightly less likely when the child was screened, but these differences are not statistically significant. These results suggest that protective shields and videotaped testimonies can be used for child witnesses in a way that does not prejudice the jury against the defendant, but it is important that these measures are used carefully.

And finally……

It seems clear that there are seemingly many factors that can influence in the courtroom, attractiveness, the role of shields, the order in which evidence is presented, the confidence of a witness, the strength of a Judge’s instructions to ignore evidence as well as key influences within the deliberation room, the role of the majority and the influence of the minority, however all of these pieces of evidence have been collected using artificial environments and therefore, their application to real-world settings are always going to be difficult to confirm.

One case of a jury’s deliberation was confirmed, the jury could not decide whether a defendant was guilty of murder and so decided to contact the victim to ask…via a Ouija board. The Jury returned a verdict of guilty.  One jury member  spoke up allowing the defendant the right to appeal, however, the original verdict was maintained.

There are many other issues such as age, race and gender that also have been explored using similar mechanisms.

UPDATE Nov 2015;  Read the story here of a juror who was so bored that she posted her thoughts on the case…to Facebook!

Further Reading/activities 

Temporal Discounting; A short sighted view?

James Dean epitomises the ‘temporal discounting’ culture, but was he a rebel without a clue as to the exact origin of that thesis?

To what extent  offenders and would be offenders influenced by their ‘temporal discounting’, the notion of taking the short term rewards rather than the considering the bigger more long term picture?  Is this live fast die young’ borne out of  erroneous decision making or are evolutionary forces at work?  If evolution has had an impact upon this very persistent behavioural pattern is it dominant in one gender?  Is this the reason males commit more crime – 80% of crime committed in many cultures is androcentric?  Does this contribute to the reason why in every country around the male life expectancy is always lower than the female, has this made men more risk takers in their behaviour which ultimately leads them to criminality?  Are risk takers more likely to enhance their chances of mate selection?

Life expectancy may vary from country to country, but there is one constant;  men on average die younger than females.


Capture 1

Daly and Wilson ( also theorists of the ‘Cinderella effect’)  conducted research into this investigating how life expectancy correlated with certain ‘temporal discounting’ behaviour such as truancy. They take an evolutionary stance that males as more likely to be risk takers are thus more likely to be involved in anti social behaviour and crime including homicide.  They also found a strong negative correlations between life expectancy and homicide rates.


Daly and Wilson concluded;


Further reading

Madon.S et al (2012) Temporal Discounting: The Differential Effect of Proximal and Distal Consequences on Confession Decisions Law and Human  Vol. 36, No. 1,