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Depending on who hires them, psychologists reach varying outcomes

The role of a psychologist in a criminal case is quite important. Their conclusion on the crime, or even the state of mind of the person accused of a committing a crime, can lead to very different results regarding sentencing and legal consequences. Psychologists can be brought in by either side of the criminal case -- the prosecution or the defense -- and their input holds a significant importance to the overall proceedings.

So it begs the question: what happens if the psychologist is unknowingly biased in the matter, leading to a skewed conclusion that may work against the defendant?

That was the question on the mind of some researchers, who recently published a study about the potential biases psychologists bring to the courtroom. The researchers approached 99 psychologists and told them they needed their input on some violent sexual crime cases. Though the cases were real, the psychologists' work would not impact the case.

But the researchers added a wrinkle to their study: they told about 50 percent of the psychologists that they were being hired by the defense, while the other psychologists were told that the prosecution had hired them. Many Eau Claire residents may see where this is going: the two groups came to very different conclusions on the case, even though the psychologists are supposed to be objective and unbiased.

It raises the question of what can be done to combat such biases. Better procedures; a more extensive vetting process; and potential scientific breakthroughs could go a long way in reducing the impact of biases in the courtroom.

Source: POPSCI, "Researchers Expose Troubling Bias In Forensic Psychology," Francie Diep, Aug. 28, 2013

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