Just Thinking

The role of judgment in justice

Psychology and Law? Someone Must Be Crazy!

Psychology is relevant to the law all around us.

When I tell legal academics that I do psychology research - design studies, collect data, and (oh my!) statistically analyze results - they say, "You must be crazy." When I tell psychology academics that I teach in a law school - to students whose goal is often just to get a degree and make lots of money - they say, "You must be crazy". And when I tell people generally that my research is on the intersection of Psychology and Law they pause then say, "Oh, you study crazy criminal people."

Well, at least I know that one of those statements is false.

I believe that psychology and law can and should work hand in glove (no, don't think about O.J.). Law is about the regulation of human behavior; psychology is the study of human behavior. Psychology should inform the creation, implementation, and compliance (or lack thereof) with law.

Yes, there are psychologists who study and evaluate the criminally insane - and even the criminally not-so-insane. Psychologists do competency evaluations and are often called in on custody decisions. They appear as experts in court cases, help to select juries, and write amicus curiae briefs.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

But in addition to those active roles in the legal system, there are hundreds of psychologists who do research on issues in which psychology can inform the law.

Like what? An issue that has been on everyone's mind the last few years is the DNA exoneration cases. Hundreds of prisoners, many of them scheduled to be executed, have been exonerated based on post-conviction DNA evidence. How did they get to prison if they were innocent? Psychology researchers have noted that nearly all of those cases have one of the following: misidentification by eyewitnesses, false confessions by defendants, or bad forensic evidence and testimony.

How can these things happen? How can someone mis-remember something so vivid as the perpetrator of a crime? Why would anyone confess to something he or she did not do? And how can forensic evidence - objective results from the science of looking at bullet markings and teeth marks and fingerprints be wrong? These issues will be the subjects of upcoming blogs.

But issues for psychology and law go beyond issues of crazy people, criminal law, and even beyond the courtroom. For example, in the last few weeks I have attended talks on such seemingly mundane topics as: organ donation, wills, and property. Why do I mention those? Because although each of these seems only like a legal issue there are vast psychological issues at work. For example, why do people choose (or not) to donate their organs and what (if anything) could or should the law do to increase the number of available donor organs? How do people choose to dispose of their assets when they die and what makes them decide whether to divide things equally among their not-so-equally-affluent and not-so-equally-devoted children? Why do people value some property more than other property and what creates a feeling of ownership? How could or should the law compensate for subjective differences in value?

Crazy or not -- psychology is relevant to the law all around us.

Barbara A. Spellman is Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia.

more...

Subscribe to Just Thinking

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?