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Processing Under Pressure 3.0

A five-year perspective on the present and future of forensic cognitive science.

Key points

  • Modern forensic science requires a cognitive perspective.
  • Topics such as eyewitness confidence and PTSD warrant further research.
  • Further investigation into current trends in forensic cognitive science will be crucial to the operation of the criminal justice system.
Matthew J. Sharps
Source: Matthew J. Sharps

Regular readers of The Forensic View will have seen references to my book, Processing Under Pressure: Stress, Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement. The first edition of that work was published in 2010, and by 2017 there had been sufficient advances in the field to warrant a second edition. In the five years since that work, sufficient change has again resulted in the need for a new edition, just published (Sharps, 2022).

The future of forensic cognitive science is important for everyone involved in the criminal justice system: officers, victims, legal personnel, jurors, students, and researchers alike. In the preparation of the third edition, I addressed a critical question: What are the most important issues facing forensic cognitive science, now and in the immediate future? What should we be studying most intensely?

Here’s what I came up with:

Topic 1: Eyewitness Confidence

Witness confidence is among the most convincing factors to jurors in criminal proceedings. But does it bear on eyewitness accuracy?

With enough respondents, there is a statistical relationship between accuracy and confidence. Yet this statistical fact cannot really predict this relationship with a single witness, which is often all we have.

But there’s more.

Accounts of specific facts, about which witnesses are certain, tend to be more reliable (Paulo et al., 2019); and eyewitness familiarity with a given suspect, leading to confidence, leads mock jurors to greater belief in the testimony of that witness (Pica et al., 2019). However, mock jurors proved to be incredibly bad at judging that familiarity, not caring whether the relevant acquaintance occurred a year or 10 years ago (Thompson et al., 2019).

All of these factors, among others, have demonstrated the complexity of the apparently simple question: Is witness confidence related to witness accuracy?

A few years ago, it would have been correct to say that we didn’t know. But now we know why we didn’t know—there are many interactive psychological factors influencing our answers to this question. Including the answers on which we rely in court.

For students and researchers in the eyewitness realm, I suggest that issues of eyewitness confidence and accuracy are among the most critically important for the foreseeable future.

Topic 2: Counterterrorism and the Detection of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)

Currently, in view of specific military/political events, it seems likely that terrorist threats, at least in the United States, will tend to increase. This situation, traditionally, has resulted in a surfeit of IEDs.

How do we detect these weapons? Traditional methods have not proven very effective. However, in my own laboratory, we have applied the principles of forensic cognitive science to IED-detection training. That application has resulted in dramatically better detection of IEDs in experimental research (see Sharps, 2022 for review).

A future Forensic View will address this work. For the moment, research on the psychological factors involved in IED detection may be crucially important.

Topic 3: PTSD

PTSD existed, under different names, through much of recorded history; General Custer and Wild Bill Hickok may have been among its most famous victims (Sharps, 2022). Yet we know little about it, including why it is massively more diagnosed today than formerly.

But many of the symptoms of PTSD are cognitive and/or perceptual in nature, and we are beginning to learn how to use forensic cognitive science both to treat PTSD and to neutralize some of its more horrifying aspects, such as daytime intrusions.

In view of current international realities, it is hard to imagine a topic of greater importance to psychologists.

Topic 4: Developmental Issues

In the third edition of the Processing book (Sharps, 2022) I devote an entire appendix to developmental issues in forensic cognitive science.

Why? Mainly because children, as victims or eyewitnesses to crimes, are very, very different from adults in the same situations.

Children may imagine aspects of crimes that weren’t there. They may strongly believe, with confidence, that things that were there were absent. And their descriptions can be, sometimes literally, out of this world.

Adolescents generally see things more accurately, but they may interpret them with wild inaccuracy, based on teenaged lack of adult experience. And older adults present a plethora of perceptual, cognitive, and health factors that absolutely require special attention. For example, what do you do with the sickly octogenarian felon in the violent world of a state prison?

Right now, we simply don’t know. Forensic cognitive developmental issues may be among the most important questions confronting us today, for law enforcement, for the judiciary, and for student and professional researchers alike.

Topic 5: Decision Processes in Criminal Justice

I recently saw a Facebook post in which a clearly intoxicated young man stole an expensive shirt in a shop, in plain sight of security cameras, and walked off with it.

The Facebook comments were fascinating.

A few people held that he was guilty of a crime and should pay for it. But most others were on his side. Some said the shop was too expensive, so the theft was okay, or that society owed the suspect special help. Several, who apparently knew him personally, said he was a great guy, with great character. So he deserved the shirt.

Popular views of crime and criminals have clearly shifted, apparently in the direction of greater sympathy for perpetrators. How will these social shifts influence judicial proceedings? This is a virtually untouched new field of research, with massive potential consequences for juridical proceedings and for society.

We need to know more.

These topics are discussed in detail elsewhere (Sharps, 2022); but these five issues struck me as among the most critical for the present and near future of forensic cognitive science. All are important for our understanding of the arcana of cognitive processing; but all are also of immense practical importance for the operation of the criminal justice system.

Let us close this post with the final words of Processing Under Pressure, which admittedly derive from a great book and an old TV show:

It’s a brave new world. Be careful out there.

References

Paulo, R.M., Albuquerque, P.B., & Bull, R. (2019). Witnesses' verbal evaluation of certainty and uncertainty during investigative interviews. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 34, 341-350.

Pica, E., Sheahan, C., Pozzulo, J., Vallano, J., & Pettalia, J. (2019). The influence of familiar and confident eyewitnesses on mock jurors' judgments. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 34, 351-361.

Sharps, M.J. (2022). Processing Under Pressure: Stress, Memory, and Decision-Making in Law Enforcement. (3rd ed.). Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law Publications, Inc. (www.LooseleafLaw.com

Thompson, L.E., Sheahan, C., Pica, E. & Pozzulo, J. (2019). The influence of familiarity, recency, and eyewitness age on mock jurors’ judgement. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 34, 362–372.

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