Psychology and Law

Every dimension of the legal world depends on notions and expectations about human psychology; the thoughts, reactions, feelings and the ability to make appropriate decisions. Psychology revolves around human behaviour and interaction, primarily focusing on the influence of one’s mental state as a result of societal processes or other such factors. The law in some of its facets incorporates theories and findings from psychology.

Police Interrogations and Lie Detection

Confession to a crime is a self-defeating concept, irrespective of the fact if one is actually guilty. Thus social psychologists showed keen interest in ascertaining as to why suspects decide to confess, specifically to the crimes they did not commit.

In the majority of the cases, it is as a result of pressures put on one’s mind and psychology in the contemporary interrogation procedures which are intense and extremely confrontational due to an absence of video recording of the entire procedure.

Although police often start an interrogation with the assumption that the suspect is guilty, they fail to accurately detect the suspect’s deception or innocence through the interrogation process, including trained and high-rank officers. The interrogators face troubles in distinguishing between true and false confessions, which is why they continue interrogating until the confession is made. Usually, once a person frames an idea or impression, they are motivated to prove it rather than disprove it, and therefore tend to establish the guilt of the suspect in the interrogation room by resorting to aggressive and harsh means.

Psychology and Law

Interrogations and Confession

As mentioned earlier, with the pre-ingrained thought of considering the suspect as guilty, the police run the investigation not to derive the truth, but rather to provoke incrimination. The physical surroundings of the interrogation room are an important characteristic to obtain an admission of guilt. The police often choose to interrogate a suspect in a small windowless room, isolating him from his network of family and friends which thereby increases the suspect’s anxiety and his desire to escape. The interrogators put pressure on the suspect in blocking ways from denying his guilt. They are trained to restrain and invade the suspect’s space by placing their bodies and faces close enough in order to make them uneasy and anxious.

Interrogators use certain techniques to convince the suspect that confessing will be more favourable than holding the truth, which is known as called minimization and maximization. Minimization is referred to convincing the suspect that the interrogators and prosecution are in a position to fully believe that the crime was not as serious as the accusation suggests, due to mitigating factors like self-defence, intoxication, or coercion. The other technique is maximization, where the evidence of guilt is so direct and strong that the suspect will be convicted irrespective whether he confesses or not.

Psychology and Law

Laboratory experiments are seldom useful in understanding the psychological mechanisms underlying a behavioural phenomenon. But false confessions pose a special challenge for experimental work because the pressures that suspects bear during interrogation cannot be replicated in the laboratory. In spite of such challenges, experimental investigation regarding specific aspects of the interrogation process is still instructive.

The Effect of Confession Evidence on Judges and Juries

Since it is difficult to believe as to why a person would confess to a crime he did not commit, confessions have a powerful and persuasive impact on juries. In experiments, the evidence is deemed to be more persuasive than eyewitness identification and negative character information.

Bearing in mind the false confessions made during interrogations, the legal fraternity recommended compulsory videotaping of custodial interrogations in order to dissuade forceful and aggressive interrogation tricks that would enable the judges to determine the voluntariness and genuineness of the confession made.

Psychology and Law

Punishment, Mental State and Moral Reasoning

Retribution and utilitarianism (which includes general and specific deterrence like sentencing, rehabilitation) are the two normative theories of punishment. As opposed to retribution, restorative justice strives towards repairing the harm, by restoring the offender back in society.

On the other hand, since people have an unconscious desire to punish the offender, retribution is their instinctive and default response to an offence. Another important punishment goal is to restore the position of the victim to communicate and announce to the victims, offenders, and third parties alike that a wrong committed has been corrected.

Both retributive and utilitarian goals to some extent depend on the mens rea. Retribution should adhere to only those who violate societal norms as a matter of personal choice but not to those who act unintentionally. Such persons should not be subjected to the threat of punishment or deterrence.

Psychology and Law

Contract Law

The Economic theory believes that people are motivated to maximise wealth by every possible means, if required, might commit offences resultantly. Therefore, promisors act indifferent for performance and breach, and that if a promisor can gain extra money from breaching a contract, he wouldn’t hesitate to do so.

Parties to contracts tend to behave with respect to the shared community norms, which shape their ideas and theories about the law of contracts, and thus people tend to assume that the one that matches their intuitions will be the applicable legal rule.

Lawyers and judges seldom believe that they do not need to invoke the psychological domains in law. They strongly trust their legal instincts and common sense and think that would render them with everything that is needed to handle a case. Common sense and intuition, with the notion that everything is known to them, changes when engaged in social perception.

Many such behavioural domains intersect with legal processes as in cases of identification of eyewitnesses, jury selection, pretrial publicity, lie detection, false confessions, and discrimination disclose the disconnection between intuitive perceptions of human behaviour and the relevant scientific data, thereby disproving the popular perceptions of legal instincts and common sense.