Oct 17

The Conspiracy Theories Malicious Intent

The ability of social media to influence how people think about a person or event has been well documented. The 24/7 availability of news shows on television and the addition of a wide-open array of news, with any particular bend you prefer, available online, people can be oversaturated with facts, opinions, interpretations, and all-out falsehoods. It is this diversity of viewpoints that allow readers to develop a loyalty to a singular site, or commentators.  Basically, there is something for everyone.

One aspect of the impact of media is the question of its ability to encourage distrust in government.  According to Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts “research suggests that reading newspapers and watching TV News programs (e.g., 60 Minutes) increased peoples understanding of the political system. However, other types of TV programming, such as entertainment talk shows actually decreased people’s understanding of the government” (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012, p. 160).  They go on to say that those who listen to talk radio distrust the government more.  Taking those two examples and incorporating social media into the mix adds a number of new players to the game. For people that question and doubt science, medicine, media, and the government it is not hard to see how conspiracy theories are something that they propose and embrace.

With the vast amount of information available online it should not be surprising that conspiracy theorists have found a home on the Internet. From the Journal of Political Philosophy, Sunstein and Vermeule offer this definition of conspiracy theory as “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role (at least until their aims are accomplished)” (Sunstein & Verneule, p. 205). Events such a 9/11, Sandy Hook, and the current Las Vegas incident have all become fodder for conspiracy theorists to float ideas of who is really responsible and what the government is hiding. Another aspect of the impact of conspiracy theories becoming normalized are those members of radio, TV, and the Internet who concentrate their efforts toward those who embrace this point of view but who also admit they are only actors looking to garner ratings.

Applying the theories used to explain negative coverage of the government, conspiracy theorists rest the entire story on ‘framing.’ Framing is used to present the event from a viewpoint that supports the underlying story the reporter/author wants told.  In Sandy Hook, the approach was that the families were all actors and it was intended to get Obama reelected (ignoring the fact that he was already elected).  The Las Vegas shootings conspiracies include a missing security guard and Antifa. Conspiracy theorists use “what is termed a strategy frame. A strategy frame focuses on the motivations behind the different positions that politicians are taking” (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, p. 160). This strategy encourages a general mistrust of government, police and even the mainstream media.

Conspiracy theories gain traction based on the availability heuristic. “The availability heuristic suggests that people make judgments based on how easy it is to recall instances of something from memory” (Schneider, Gorman, & Coutts, p. 158). In addition “a central feature of conspiracy theories is that they are extremely resistant to correction, certainly through direct denials or counter-speech by government officials; apparently contrary evidence can usually be shown to be a product of the conspiracy itself” (Sunstein & Verneule, p.210).

Technology has contributed to education, communications, and the sharing of a wealth of information. But the dark side is when it is used to exploit the vulnerable, mislead and misrepresent facts and events, and to create an opportunity for undermining core values. The use of conspiracy theories can undermine confidence in the institutions and government that we are reliant on.  The question is how to respond.  Is it best to ignore these things or refute them with factual information?  Sunstein and Vermeule propose that: “Some false conspiracy theories create serious risks. They do not merely undermine democratic debate; in extreme cases, they create or fuel violence. If the government can dispel such theories, it should do so. We have suggested, however, that government can minimize this effect by rebutting more rather than fewer theories, by enlisting independent groups to supply rebuttals, and by cognitive infiltration designed to break up the crippled epistemology of conspiracy-minded groups and informationally isolated social networks. This is just another opportunity for social psychologists to develop an approach to dispel or manage the impact of conspiracy theories.






            Media/Communications Technology [Lecture notes]. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/fa17/21781–15384/content/10_lesson/printlesson.html


Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (Eds.). (2012). Applied social psychology (Second ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.


Sunstein, C., & Vermeule, A. (2009). Symposium on conspiracy theories: Causes and cures. Journal of Political Philosophy, 17(2), 202-227. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9760.2008.00325.x/abstract



Oct 17

Social Media Use in Government

Historically, politicians have usually aimed to stay out of the public spotlight, and for a long time were able to do so because of the limited communications technology available. But, as we know, this dynamic has completely changed. With the advent of the mass media, the internet, and social media came an increased interest on the part of politicians to use media to speak to the public. An early example of this were President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats. During these 28 chats that take place between 1933 and 1944, the President would address the entire nation, and anyone with a radio was able to listen in. This was a significant development in the ability of politicians to communicate with their constituents. However, because radio technology was so new, it was rather expensive and it was difficult to produce quality broadcasts. For these reasons, the President was really the only politician in the United States capable of taking advantage of the new technology. In total, Roosevelt made 28 broadcasts that lasted anywhere from 10-50 minutes in length, over an eleven-year period. When we compare Roosevelt’s fireside chats to the now incessant tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram uploads, and even snapchat stories produced daily by politicians at all different levels of government, it is only natural to wonder how this tremendous shift in communications technology used by politicians has affected our political system and our society.
Throughout lesson 9, we learned about the potential effects of media on our thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. For example, we learned about agenda setting which occurs when media outlets chose to cover particular stories while omitting others, thereby setting the public’s agenda (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts 2012). While agenda setting by media outlets is an important topic, I will focus here on the potential effects, both positive and negative, of social media usage aimed specifically at communicating a political message to the public by government officials. I believe this to be an important topic because, in many regards, any individual, politicians included, with a popular social media account has essentially become their own media outlet. Like large media outlets, these individuals chose what to post, and they decide how they want to frame the information they are presenting.
A survey between 2010 and 2014 by the Pew research center found that between the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections there was a 10% increase in the number of registered voters following political figures, organizations, and/or candidates (Anderson 2015). Also, the researchers at Pew found that when registered voters were asked why they were following political figures, 41% said “Finding out about political news before other people do” was a major reason, 35% said “feeling more connected to political candidates or groups” was a major reason, and 26% said “getting more reliable information than what is available from traditional news organizations” was a major reason (Anderson 2015). It is critical to note that these were supplied responses that those surveyed had to rank as either a major reason, minor reason, or not a reason. Keeping the limitations of these results in mind, it is still interesting to consider that 41% and 26% of surveyed voters respectively felt that either getting the news as quickly as possible was beneficial or that individual politicians provided more reliable news than organized news agencies.
Keeping the results of the Pew survey in mind, I will now discuss a recent article that addressed the impact of regulatory policies aimed at government social media use. Bertot et al. begin by discussing the potential benefits of government social media use. They list three fundamental upsides to government organizations and figures use of social media which are, democratic participation and engagement, Co-production, and Crowdsourcing (Bertot at al. 2012). These are all important and valid points. Social media indeed has the potential to increase democratic participation given how easy it is for voters to follow along and participate in politics. Co-production would also be beneficial, as government and citizens could co-produce solutions to problems. And crowdsourcing also has the potential to be a positive sociopolitical force. However, government use of social media also presents a number of potential problems. The main issues identified in this article were privacy, security, accuracy, and archiving (Bertot at al. 2012). These four potential problem areas are important to acknowledge, and a failure to recognize their importance could have resulted in bad outcomes for our political system and our society. To close their article, the authors provide a long list of questions they believe need to be addressed by regulators. This list highlights the fact that technological innovation has greatly outpaced our regulatory abilities.
Overall, it seems as though politicians and voting citizens alike are using social media respectively to broadcast and consume political news without considering the potential drawbacks. This is concerning, given how widespread social media use has become and how challenging it is to decipher the validity of the many political options and ideas we currently encounter on social media.


Anderson, Monica. “More Americans are using social media to connect with politicians.” Pew Research Center, 19 May 2015, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/19/more-americans-are-using-social-media-to-connect-with-politicians/.

Bertot, John Carlo, et al. “The impact of polices on government social media usage: Issues, challenges, and recommendations.” Government Information Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, 2012, pp. 30–40., doi:10.1016/j.giq.2011.04.004.

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understand and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. 

Oct 17

Facebook, dangerous place?

Do you have Facebook? Probably I guess. In my case, I do not have a Facebook account. What is even more interesting is that I have never had Facebook. I mean, it is not that surprising for me, but people tell me so. I know many people close their Facebook account for a certain reason, and people think that is my case. It has been an interesting journey to stay off this social media platform. The question is why?

As a teen, I struggled to fit in at school. I spent most of my years from middle school through high school alone. It felt like everybody else was at a different level than I was. I think this distant from the world around me kept me from getting involved with social media which was Myspace during middle school and then Facebook during high school. I later defined my identity and did not like to do things under pressure or do things because everybody else was doing it. Facebook was something that everybody was doing and whoever did not was a strange person. I learned to embrace my uniqueness and stayed away from Facebook. As an adult, my choice has been the same. It just never convinced me and I felt good to not go in the same direction as everybody else. I do know the positive side of social media and Facebook but the negative was simply heavier for me. I believe social media could be very damaging, especially during adolescence and should be managed carefully.

According to Manago, Graham, Greenfield, & Salimkhan, even after adolescence, a period of time called emerging adulthood, is still a critical period for identity development (2008). They mention that, as noted by Erikson, adolescents create a sense of self by interacting with peers, as do emerging adults (Manago, 2008). Social media nowadays plays a big role in peer relations, therefore influencing identity development. In fact, Manago and colleagues conducted a study regarding the relation between Myspace and identity, and they found that the social media platform influence personal, social and gender identity (2008). Identity was influenced by the freedom to experiment through social media, false representation, and pressure from social groups; while gender identity was influenced due to role stereotypes especially women who are pressured to sexualize their image (Manago et al., 2008).

So, what about Facebook? Well, it is still popular today! According to Zephoria Digital Marketing, as of June 2017, Facebook has over 2.01 billion active users (Top 20 Facebook Statistics). That is a lot of people. United States population is around 326.1 million people and the world population is around 7. 4 billion people (U.S. Census Bureau). Facebook is all over the world. Assunção, Costa, Tagliabue, & Matos conducted a study to investigate problematic Facebook use among adolescents. They state that Facebook is the most used social media platform in the world and adolescents are increasingly using it as a form of communication and interaction (2017). This study showed that a secure relationship between parents and adolescents result in better relations of adolescents with peers and in turn, less problematic use of Facebook (Assunção et al., 2017). They link these results to the attachment theory, which predicts that a secure parent-child bond results in a trusting person able to form positive relations with others. Assunção et al., explain that face-to-face interaction helps develop interpersonal skills and peer integration reduces problematic use of Facebook (2017).

Another study that relates to this discussion is one conducted by Pentina and Zhang. They conducted a survey among young adults and adults about emotional disclosure on Facebook. The results showed that personality traits, specifically extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness; in addition to support from friends are significantly related to disclosure of positive emotions on Facebook (2017).

In conclusion, Facebook seems to be an extension of the real world. It could go either way, positive or negative. The social media platform allows for experiences that influence the development of identity. It is also an extension of the real world with further space for expression, and it could involve new complexities than the ones experienced face-to-face. My choice is to not get involved in Facebook. I understand now it probably was the best idea to stay way during my adolescence. That is a personal choice, and I think one should just try to keep that space safe and positive.



Top 20 Facebook Statistics – Updated October 2017. (2017, October 19). Retrieved October 22, 2017, from https://zephoria.com/top-15-valuable-facebook-statistics/

Manago, Graham, Greenfield, & Salimkhan (2008). Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology: Self-Presentation and gender on Myspace. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1867078/external_tools/190303

U.S. and World Population Clock. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2017, from https://www.census.gov/popclock/

Assunção, R. S., Costa, P., Tagliabue, S., & Matos, P. M. (2017). Problematic Facebook Use in Adolescents: Associations with Parental Attachment and Alienation to Peers. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26(11), 2990-2998. doi:10.1007/s10826-017-0817-2

Pentina, I., & Zhang, L. (2017). Effects of Social Support and Personality on Emotional Disclosure on Facebook and in Real Life. Journal of Behavior & Information Technology, 36(5), 484-492. doi: 10.1037/t07016-000

Oct 17

Violence in the Media

In today’s world, more than 60% of TV shows contain some violence and 40% of these programs are considered heavily violent (Swanbrow, 2007). Violence on TV does not always equate to violent messages. Despite this, a study conducted by Smith et. al (1998) found TV shows today are 15 times more likely to promote pro-violent messages or equivocate violent messages, than to promote themes against violence. Why is violent in the media important? Research has been conducted resulting in findings that there is a correlation between the viewing of violent television programs and violent behavior (Potter, 2003). Unfortunately, children are the most susceptible to this known correlation of violent television and violent behaviors (Wilson et al., 2002). Frightening enough, two thirds of television shows and video games directed towards children contain violent media (Bushman & Anderson, 2001).

A plethora of studies have proven the correlation between media violence and violent behaviors. In the Potter (2003) study mentioned above, over 30 different scenarios were analyzed depicting the viewing behaviors of violent television. This study found the effects of watching violent television include aggressive behaviors (both short term and long term), desensitization to violent behaviors, acceptance of violence in daily life, and increased imitation of the violent behaviors presented. The desensitization and acceptance of violence in our society is dangerous in a number of ways. If people are desensitized to violence, that means people are less likely to feel empathetic towards hurting other beings. The acceptance of violence opens windows up to opportunities of thinking violent behaviors are okay to perform, and there will be no consequences. If an increased amount of people share these beliefs, we will be doomed to a world of chaos.

A quasi experiment conducted by Joy, Kimball, & Zabrack (1986) presented three different societies. One society had no television, one society had one television station, and one had multiple television stations. All three societies had similar levels of violence before television was brought to the society that was not exposed to TV programming at all. Two years after this society was exposed to TV programming, both physical and verbal aggression dramatically increased in children in this society only (Joy, Kimball, & Zabrack, 1986). As we mentioned earlier, children are more prone to the negative effects of violent television as compared to adults.

How do we prevent violence from affecting the children in our society? A study conducted by Nathanson and Cantor (2000) presented girls and boys separated into two groups. These two groups watched a cartoon that contained violent behaviors. One group of boys and girls did not watch the cartoon, one group only watched the cartoon, and one group watched the cartoon and thought about how the victim of the cartoon violence felt. The group instructed to analyze the cartoon was asked to do so in order to elicit feelings of empathy. The feelings of empathy were supposed to lessen the effects of desensitization of violent behaviors. The results of the study found boys who were asked to express empathy were less likely to elicit aggressive behaviors, compared to the boys who simply watched the cartoon without an intervention (Nathanson & Cantor, 2000). The result of this study can be generalized across the whole population. Parents, guardians, teachers, and authority figures to children can prevent the negative effects of violent media on children by promoting empathetic thought processes after a child witnesses a violent act on television. Violence is prevalent in the world today. It would not be a logical solution to just cut children off from technology in its entirety. Teaching children empathetic values and the consequences of violence can help preempt the imitation they may enact in the future.


Bushman, B.J., & Anderson, C.A. (2001). Media violence and the American public: Scientific facts versus media misinformation. American Psychologist, 56, 477-489

Joy, L.A., Kimball, M.M., & Zabrack, M.L. (1986). Television and children’s aggressive behavior. In T.M. Williams (Ed.), The impact of television: A natural experiment in three communities (pp. 303-360). New York: Academic Press.

Nathanson, A.I., & Cantor, J. (2000). Reducing the agressive-promoting effect of violent cartoons by increasing children’s fictional involvement with the victim: A study of active mediation. Journal of broadcasting and & Electronic media, 44, 125-142

Potter, W.J. (2003). The 11 myths of media violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Smith, S.L., Wilson, B.J., Kunkel, D., Linz, D., Potter, W.J., Colvin, C.M., et al. (1998).   Violence in television programming overall: University of California, Santa Barbara study. In National television violence study (Vol. 3, pp. 5-194). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Swanbrow, D. (2007, November 27). Violent TV, games pack a powerful public health threat. Retrieved October 18, 2017, from http://ns.umich.edu/new/releases/ 6203-violent-tv-games-pack-a-powerful-public-health-threat

Oct 17

Situational Determinants of Criminal Behavior

Is there such a thing like wrong place, wrong time? Or maybe an accumulation of events that lead people to behave in bad ways. Situational determinants are factors that influence criminal behavior. As I read about this concept, I thought about how sometimes good people do bad things. Are people entirely bad or entirely good? Could there still be good in the bad? One thing that Schneider, Grumman & Coutts clarify is that understanding situational determinants does mean removing responsibility for the acts (2012, p. 248).

When I read about situational determinants, I quickly linked the topic to a TV show I’m currently watching called Ozark. Although I am aware that the story depicted in this show is not real, it still got me thinking. In summary, the story presents a family in big trouble. Marty, dad and financial planner, involved in money laundering for years, nearly was murdered by the cartel’s boss after he found out that Marty’s partners have been stealing money from him for years. Everybody was killed but Marty convinced the drug lord to let him and his family live with the condition that he would keep laundering money for him a new place full of opportunity for the business. The boss was convinced and gave him a timeframe to clean 8 million dollars. Then is about surviving and struggling to fulfill his promise and accomplish the goal. I have not finished the show, so I am still watching as he and his family struggles in this new place. He faces a reality that is not what he told the boss, gets in trouble with a local drug farmer, is followed by the FBI and is constantly threatened.

So why did I think about this show when reading about situational determinants. A little more halfway through the show, one episode is entirely dedicated to present the before of the story. This guy and his family were normal people and you confirm he was a decent guy. He is presented with an opportunity which he repeatedly declines but situational determinants influence his decision until he and his wife accept the job opportunity. They needed money, the wife could not find a job and they justified their decision with very wrong expectations. As soon as he accepted the job, the boss killed the previous person who was laundering money for him in front of Marty. In that moment, he probably knew he was now stuck with a very bad person. Fast-forward 10 or 15 years, he is doing the unimaginable to keep his family alive; something the was sure would never happen.

Situational determinants of criminal behavior are not justification of actions. Rather, they provide an insight into what factors influence a person to commit a crime. Schneider et al., explain two factors; proximal variables and distal variables. Proximal variables are those that occur close in time to the actions of the person while distal variables are those that occurred long before the actions of the person (Schneider et al., 2012, p. 248).

I thought, this could totally happen in real life but I do not know any stories that I could tell. Then I remembered a movie I watched a few years ago called Bernie, based on a true story. The movie basically presents the picture of Bernie who is very popular in the community. Everybody knows him, it seems like everybody likes him, he is just a great guy. He is versatile, he can do anything; always involved with the community. A rich, elderly woman of the community becomes a widow and Bernie soon becomes friends with her. Soon they are spending a lot of time together and traveling the world. Bernie gets very involved in the lady’s life, even in her financial affairs. After years, the relationship is difficult and the lady is very demanding. Bernie seems to become tired of her behavior and trapped in the situation. Then, one day, he killed her.

In relation to situational determinants of criminal behavior and in accordance to the story presented in the movie, the lady’s behavior which was abusive and possessive led Bernie to detonate and end her life. This of course is not excuse or justification for his actions in any way. It is interesting however, the support he received 20 years ago. Most people in the community supported Bernie and stated that this lady was indeed very difficult.  He was sentenced in 1999 to life in prison and supporters at the courthouse yelled “We love you, Bernie” (Hollandsworth, 2016). This is such a complex story. Was he really influenced by her behavior? Could he still be considered a good person who did a horrible thing? The victim’s family, naturally, do not think this way and do not care for situational factors. There is the movie version, there is Bernie’s version and there is the family’s version. The fact is that Bernie will spend his life in prison because no matter what factors determined his actions, he is responsible and did committed murder.

People are influenced by different factors, personal and situational factors that impact one’s actions at a certain moment in life. Some factors could be closely related to the present and some others could belong to the past, but they influence a person’s behavior. It is not about justification but about understanding the crime.



Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (Eds.). (2012). Applied social psychology (Second ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

HOLLANDSWORTH, Skip. “Bernie in Hell.” Texas Monthly, 31 May 2016, www.texasmonthly.com/the-culture/what-to-make-of-bernie-tiede-now/.

Oct 17

Why the Pennsylvania Innocence project is important

Lesson 8 blog


Why the Pennsylvania Innocence project is important


When the founding fathers wrote the sixth amendment promising that in all criminal prosecutions, “the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed…” they were in no way able to foresee a future where news and information is available everywhere on a 24/7 basis (U. S. Constitution, n.d.). News, opinions, biases, rumors, innuendo, fake news, and conspiracy theories have found a way to infiltrate and sometimes undermine the true intent of this amendment.


The issue of bias having the ability to impact the criminal justice system is evident in jury participants, collection of evidence, interrogations, eyewitness reports, and lineups (Lesson 8, The Legal System, n.d.). The theory of perceptual bias – “errors that distort the perception process – that in turn lead to faulty judgments”(Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2012, p.220) contributes to problems with the process at all levels. Whether the tendency is to view behaviors through a lens of halo effect (overall impression), or first impressions error, or in the case of self-fulfilling prophecy when prior expectations lead to expected results, there are many ways that biases impede the search for justice (Schneider et al., p. 221-223. According to Schneider, Gruman and Coutts “social psychological research, guided by social psychological theory, has played a significant role in identifying possible sources of bias and error that occurs during police investigations” (Schneider et al., 2012).


The effect of bias in the criminal justice system has in some cases resulted in an unfair conviction. The mission statement of The Pennsylvania Innocence Project is “to exonerate those convicted of crimes they did not commit and to prevent innocent people from being convicted” (Pennsylvania Innocence, n.d.). Started in 2008, with assistance from law students at Villanova and Temple University worked with Davis Richman and David Rudovsky to identify cases of the convicted innocent and work to have those cases reviewed and to improve the criminal justice system. In 2016 five additional law schools have joined the project, including Duquesne, Pitt, Penn, Drexel, and Rutgers (Pennsylvania Innocence, n.d.).


In 2012 the Act4Innocence Campaign was initiated “to support the implementation of practices that will better protect the innocent such as revitalized eyewitness identification procedures, required recording of police interrogations of suspects, and increased oversight of government jailhouse informants” (Pennsylvania Innocence, n.d.).

The project reports that DNA testing has provided undeniable evidence that exonerates those convicted of a crime that was based on eyewitness testimony. In a blog post by Jake Kind, law student, he states: “In a judicial case, lawyers present a depiction of reality through storytelling apparatuses, such as pieces of evidence, witnesses, and experts in certain fields. In turn, the judge or each jury member amasses a personal collection of information that he/she then uses to form a decision.  Every judge and juror has an individual bias and viewpoint. That is how we practice law.  In turn, bias pervades even the sanctity of the courtroom” (Kind, n.d.).

Accepting that bias exists and developing strategies to address the impact of this bias has been part of the Innocence Project and now it needs to be proactively addressed by applied social psychologists, law enforcement, and the legal system.  It is time that we work to support the intent of the sixth amendment and turn down the noise of bias that has hijacked the system.



Kind, J. (n.d.). The partiality for bias: why understanding bias is integral to discussing innocence. Retrieved from http://innocenceprojectpa.org/partiality-bias-understanding-bias-integral-discussing-innocence-guest-post-jake-kind/


Lesson 8: the legal system/criminal justice [Lecture notes]. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/fa17/21781–15384/content/09_lesson/printlesson.html


Pennsylvania innocence project. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://innocenceprojectpa.org/

Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (Eds.). (2012). Applied social psychology (Second ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.


U.S. Constitution. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://constitutioncenter.org/media/files/constitution.pdf



Oct 17

Eyewitness Misidentification

This week’s lesson focuses on the criminal justice system and the many applications applied social psychology theory has influenced in this field. The textbook discussed the case of Jennifer Thompson, who was sexually assaulted, and then falsely identified Ronald Cotton of this crime. Ronald Cotton spent 11 years in prison for a crime he was falsely accused of performing, even though he admittedly denied the accusations. During Cotton’s incarnation another inmate, Bobby Poole, bragged about his involvement in this sexual assault, which he later denied in court. It was through the diligence of the Innocence Project that led to further DNA testing and the exoneration of Ronald Cotton (as cited in Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). As horrible as this scenario played out for both Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, it has been revealed over the past decades that many individuals have been accused and sentenced to prison for crimes they may not have committed based on false eyewitness identification.

I watched a video of Jennifer Thompson tell the story of her sexual assault and in the video, she describes her conscientious effort to be able to identify the assailant of her attack (PopTech 2011). She purposely tried to find identifying markers of the perpetrators clothing, skin, height, and arm length. Thompson tried to “etch” anything that would enable her to identify her assailant, should she survive this attack (PopTech, 2011). However, as adamant as Thompson was in her accuracy of identifying Ronald Cotton as her attacker, she was wrong. Two factors that may have contributed to Thompson’s eyewitness misidentification, include priming and the cross-race effect (Hastay, 2009; Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012).

The Innocence Project claims that eyewitness misidentification has been the leading cause of wrongful convictions in 75% of the 250 exonerated US prisoners (as cited in Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). Hastay (2009) suggested that Jennifer Thompson may have been primed by police detectives to select Ronald Cotton as the attacker when she helped a sketch artist develop a composite of her attacker. Visual priming suggests Thompson’s exposure to the sketch of her attacker may have influenced a later response when she was exposed to a police lineup which contained Ronald Cotton who represented the sketch. Furthermore, once Thompson identified Cotton as her attacker the police provided verbal priming indicating they thought he was the perpetrator. These two priming incidents further validated Thompson’s affirmation that Cotton was her attacker.

The cross-race effect suggests that individuals are better at recognizing and identifying faces of those in their own race than those of differing races (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). Thompson is a white female who was sexually assaulted by a black male, Bobby Poole. Dodson and Dobolyi (2015) studied the cross-race effect in conjunction with decision time and accuracy and the results suggest when identifying cross-race faces participants are “overconfident when selecting a cross-race face from a line-up which worsens the relationship between their confidence and the accuracy of an identifications for cross-race than same face faces” (Dodson & Dobolyi, 2015). The detective involved in the Thompson case stated that once she narrowed the pictures of her possible alleged attackers down to two, she spent several minutes staring at them. The detective thought this length of time was more indicative of an accurate identification. However, research has found that “faster decisions are typically more accurate for positive identification from line-ups than slower identifications” (Dodson & Dobolyi, 2015). The cross-race effect is very robust and certainly this phenomenon may have played a role in the Thompson case (Bornstein, et al… 2013).

Although, Jennifer Thompson stated she consciously tried to “etch every detail of her attacker in her mind,” she still identified the wrong individual. Unfortunately, Ronald Cotton was an innocent man who spent over a decade in prison for a crime he did not commit, based on false identification. As we know memory is faulty, especially when stressed (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). Thompson’s case certainly has illustrated the inaccuracies of eyewitness accounts when it relates to priming and the cross-race effect. However, many cases of sexual assault now have DNA technology that will more accurately and quickly identify the alleged attacker’s innocence or guilt.

Bornstein, B.H., Laub, C.E., Meissner, C.A., Susa, K.J. (2013). The Cross-Race Effect: Resistant to Instructions. Journal of Criminology. Doi 10.1155/2013/745836 Retrieved from https://www.hindawi.com/archive/2013/745836/cta/

Dodson, C.S. and Dobolyi, D.G. (2015). Confidence and Eyewitness Identifications: The Cross-Race Effect, Decision, Time and Accuracy. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 30. 113-125. Retrieved from http://sk8es4mc2l.search.serialssolutions.com/?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info%3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF-8&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fsummon.serialssolutions.com&rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&rft.genre=article&rft.atitle=Confidence+and+Eyewitness+Identifications%3A+The+Cross-Race+Effect%2C+Decision+Time+and+Accuracy&rft.jtitle=Applied+Cognitive+Psychology&rft.au=Dodson%2C+Chad+S&rft.au=Dobolyi%2C+David+G&rft.date=2016-01-01&rft.issn=0888-4080&rft.eissn=1099-0720&rft.volume=30&rft.issue=1&rft.spage=113&rft.epage=125&rft_id=info:doi/10.1002%2Facp.3178&rft.externalDBID=n%2Fa&rft.externalDocID=10_1002_acp_3178&paramdict=en-US

Hastay, L. (2009) How do eyewitnesses make mistakes? Pickingcottonbook.com Retrieved from http://www.pickingcottonbook.com/eyewitness.html

PopTech (2011). Thompson & Cotton Forgive. Youtube.com Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qB7MrfJ7X_c&app=desktop

Schneider, F., Gruman, J., and Coutts, L. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. (2ed). Washington D.C., Sage Publications.



Oct 17

Wrongful Interrogation

Amanda Knox was your average, 20 year old college student studying abroad in Italy. Amanda was experiencing the picturesque study abroad experience. She went to class, visited local coffee shops, went shopping in Italian boutiques, she even started a relationship with a young man by the name of Raffaele Sollecito. This amazing experience was eradicated when Meredith Kercher, a young woman Amanda lived with in Italy, was found raped and brutally murdered in their house. Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were wrongfully the top suspects of the crime (Blackhurst & McGinn, 2016). A vital line Knox mentioned when describing her case was as follows, “I think people love monsters, and so when they get the chance, they want to see them.” Amanda Knox was subjected to 5 fulls days of questioning and interrogation. The Italian police department had self fulfilled prophecies and fell faulty to the fundamental attribution error when interrogating the innocent suspect. Amanda told the Italian police she committed the crime because she was coerced by the police. Physical abuse, lies and illusory scenarios were used to confuse Amanda Knox during her interrogation into confessing to the murder of Meredith Kercher. Noted, at the beginning of the investigation Knox avers, “All I know is that I didn’t kill Meredith, and so I have nothing but lies to be afraid of” (Injustice, n.d.). So how did an innocent girl get sentenced to a 26 year sentence of a crime she did not commit?

Self fulfilling prophecy is the psychological theory that occurs when people’s expectations influence certain behaviors and results in the person seeing their expectations come true (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). In the Amanda Knox case, a specific Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini is still convinced to this day Amanda Knox was involved in the murder of Meredith Kercher. Mignini immediately accused Amanda of the murder when looking at the crime scene, even though there was insufficient evidence. He had a theory he believed was the truth, and Mignini did everything in his power to see it through. There was clear evidence that suspect, Rudy Guede was clearly at the crime scene and insufficient evidence Knox was there. Mignini took the evidence and said Rudy, Amanda, and Raffaele were all involved in the murder. Mignini had every intention of convicting Amanda Knox for the murder (Blackhurst & McGinn, 2016).

The fundamental attribution error also played a role in the obdurate theory Mignini and the Italian police department had of Amanda Knox. The fundamental attribution error happens when people focus on stable, internal characteristics as opposed to external environmental factors of a situation. Throughout the Amanda Knox case, there was a lack of sufficient evidence pointing Amanda to the crime. Mignini kept pointing out his perception of irregular personality traits of Amanda Knox that are common in serial killers. He implied Amanda acted unremorseful when she heard about the death of her housemate. Mignini was trying to pin the murder on Amanda based off stable personality traits she thought she had, rather than focusing on the crime scene, evidence, testimonies, or facts that were involved in the case (Blackhurst & McGinn, 2016).

Amanda Knox was acquitted due to erroneous and insufficient evidence at the crime scene. This was after four years spent in prison for being wrongfully accused of committing murder. Rudy Guede was rightfully sent to prison for the murder of Meredith Kercher (Blackhurst & McGinn, 2016). The Amanda Knox case could have been prevented in its entirety if moral interrogations were conducted. Cognitive interviews could have been used to interrogate Amanda instead of physical abuse and illusory scenarios. Cognitive interviews use open ended questions and pauses to make the suspect feel more comfortable expressing what they know about the case at hand. This allows suspects to elaborate on topics more, resulting in extra information the interviewer may not have known prior (Fisher & Geiselman,1992). A video recording with proof of the environment Amanda Knox was subjected to during the interrogations could have been helpful in the case against Amanda. Since only audio tapes were recorded during the interrogation, it was not easy to understand how and why Amanda Knox stated she committed the murder of Meredith. Maybe if there was a video recording representing the interrogation accurately, the jury would have seen Amanda was coerced into saying she committed the crime. Albeit visual proof, the jury will solely base their decisions on Amanda’s words and not the environment (Yarwood, n.d.). Hopefully, interventions such as cognitive interviews and video recordings of interrogations will preempt others from being wrongfully committed for crime.


Blackhurst, R., & McGinn, B. (Directors). (2016). Amanda Knox [Motion picture]. Netflix.

Fisher, R.P., & Geiselman, R.E. (1992). Memory-enhancing techniques in investigative interviewing: The     cognitive interview. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understand and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

The illegal interrogation of Amanda Knox. (n.d.). Retrieved October 11, 2017, from http://www.injusticeinperugia.org/TheInterrogation.html

Yarwood, M. (n.d.). Interrogations and investigations [Lecture transcript]. Retrieved October 11, 2017, from Canvas website: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1867078/modules/items/22915566

Oct 17

How Valuable are Eyewitness Accounts?

Recently, a New York Councilman introduced legislation that would require New York City Police officers to receive parental or guardian consent before their child stands in for a police lineup (Gannon, 2017). While this legislation is meant to protect the children serving as fillers in lineups, it adds further questions regarding the legitimacy of police lineups. According to Pennsylvania State University (2017), police lineups often can create an unfair situation for uncharged suspects. Police lineups provide victims with a very limited amount of information, and a small sample size of potential suspects. Pennsylvania State University (2017), notes that victims who are exposed to police lineups are not judging the suspects based off of their personal account, rather, they make their decision based on the suspects who stand in the lineup.

According to Schneider et al. (2012), there is a strong need to develop a criminal identification process that limits suspect identification errors. Such errors have the potential to lead to “false identifications” (Schneider et al., 2012, p. 258). The presence of inaccurate identifications has plagued police detectives throughout the history of the criminal justice system. Beth Schuster (2007), describes the consequences of inaccurate identification in the case of 22-year old Jerry Miller, a young man, who in 1981 was charged with the robbery, kidnapping and rape of a victim. It is worth noting that Miller was released from prison in 2007, making him the 200th U.S. suspect to be cleared of his crimes on the basis of DNA findings (Schuster, 2007).

The Miller case is just one of many instances where DNA evidence won out over an eye witness account. Schneider et al. (2012), add that eyewitness errors accounted for 75 percent of wrongful convictions in 258 criminal cases that were studied. These errors bring up an important concept that plays a major role in misidentifications. In police lineups, the cross-race effect can often be a significant influence in incidences of misidentification. According to Schneider et al. (2012), the cross-race effect refers to an individual’s ability to better identify their own race than different races. In a police lineup made up of completely different races than the eyewitness, the potential for identification errors increases significantly.

To reduce errors made throughout the lineup process, Schneider et al. (2012), recommended that individuals who play the role as filler suspects all share similar physical characteristics with the main suspect. Schneider et al. (2012), also state that when no filler suspects are used in police lineups, the odds of an innocent suspect being identified increase significantly. Additionally, there is no difference in the accuracy of police lineups whether in live or photographic form (Schuster, 2007). Because of the error potential in eyewitness questioning, police detectives must rely on both, superior DNA testing as well as a careful and well-thought-out presentation of suspect lineups. Despite the many advances in criminal justice procedures, there still remains a high number of individuals who are exonerated of their crimes, many years after incarceration. Unfortunately, the need for intervention regarding identification strategies remains extremely high.


Gannon, M. (2017). Lancman Introduces Juvenile Lineup Bill. Queens Chronicle. Retrieved from http://www.qchron.com/editions/queenswide/lancman-introduces-juvenile-lineup-bill/article_8b377d12-cdd0-5d6d-81d1-2c0424ea6050.html

Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2017). Lesson 8: The Legal System/Criminal Justice. PSYCH 424. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1867078/modules/items/22915566

Schneider, F., Gruman, J., & Coutts, L. (2012) Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Schuster, B. (2007). Police Lineups: Making Eyewitness Identification More Reliable. National Institute of Justice. Issue 258. Retrieved from https://www.nij.gov/journals/258/pages/police-lineups.aspx

Oct 17

Judges, Before and After Snack Time

Are judges truly impartial arbiters? As a society, it is important that we believe in the ability of the judges that serve throughout our nation’s courtrooms to make unbiased, fair decisions. Juries in the United States must have a minimum of six members, but a judge is just one person. In this week’s lesson, we learned about the many prejudices and biases that plague jury members and have the ability to affect their decision making. But what about judges? In non-criminal cases, judges are usually tasked with reaching a verdict of guilty or not guilty all by themselves. Yes, judges have years of law schooling and real-world practical judicial experience under their robes, but are they not susceptible to prejudices and biases as well? What about cognitive load, are judges free from this biopsychological phenomenon as well? Judges play a critical role in our justice system, and while they may have years of training on their side, they are human nonetheless. In this post, I will discuss a research article that questions the ability of judges to make truly impartial, fair, and consistent rulings.
Before discussing the research article that led me to write this post, I want to review the concept of cognitive load. Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort required to accomplish a task (Sweller 1988). When more mental energy is required to complete a task, it may be said that the individual is experiencing high cognitive load. Researchers have focused primarily on how cognitive load can impair learning and decision making. The theory is that things, like learning difficult new concepts and making tough decisions, can put people in states of high cognitive load, and that during these states, people are less likely to fully retain newly learned information and are more likely to make decisions by using mental shortcuts or heuristics that help reduce cognitive load (Sweller 1988). While heuristics can be great for learning new concepts, and making decisions during low consequence social situations, they can also subconsciously influence our decisions in ways that may not be desired.
There is another important aspect of cognitive load, however, mainly what the load part of cognitive load means biologically speaking, and what the effects of the load on things like decision making. In a research paper aptly named, The Physiology of Willpower, researchers investigated the effects of cognitive load during, induced during self-regulatory tasks, on blood glucose levels. The researchers found that self-control requires a lot of mental energy, and they don’t mean this in the sense that people just have to think hard, they do, but the researchers are really referring to the depletion of glucose, the brain’s energy supply. They demonstrate that acts of self-control deplete glucose at a breakneck pace, and hypothesize that this depletion of glucose is what leads people to fall back on mental shortcuts when performing difficult tasks, like self-control (Gailliot & Baumeister 2007). So, we have judges who have to hear novel cases and make decisions all day long, but these judges have years of experience under their belts and are able to use their mental training to reduce cognitive load and therefore glucose consumption by deploying mental shortcuts. Right? Well, kind of. There is research that suggests judges may be deploying these mental shortcuts a little too often, making decisions without appreciating the uniqueness of each case, but that is not necessarily what I am interested in here. Instead, I chose to focus on research that looked at another way glucose might be getting depleted in our judges.
Living organisms rely on external energy sources to maintain the processes that sustain life. In other words, we have to eat food in order to sustain the bodily processes that support life. In the research article of primary interest, three researchers looked at the decisions judges made at parole hearings and how the judges’ decisions fluctuated based on when they last ate. The researchers recorded over 1,000 rulings over a ten-month period that were in direct response to an inmate’s parole eligibility (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso 2010). The researchers found that favorable rulings were given out disproportionally at the beginning of the workday and after food breaks. More specifically, each “ruling session” starts out with judges giving favorable rulings ~65% of the time which then proceeds to steadily drop all the way down to 0%. Even more interesting is the fact that after a food break, the favorable ruling rates shoot back up to ~65% and then fall again in a similar pattern (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso 2010). I don’t know about you, but based on these results, I would much rather have my parole hearing just after lunch! The researchers suggest the existence of the discrepancy in judicial decision making can be explained at least in part by the fluctuation of glucose levels that affect mood and mental resources. However, the researchers also point out that the explanatory power of their results is limited for a number of reasons including the fact that the researchers did not directly measure mood throughout the day (Danziger, Levav, & Avnaim-Pesso 2010).
We may not be able to point to a direct cause for the discrepancy in judicial parole decisions, but we can certainly see a correlation between glucose levels and decision making. These results are intriguing because they suggest that it is not only juries that we need to worry about, but judges as well. After all, judges are human, they are susceptible to prejudice, bias, and hunger just like the rest of us. Judges may have years of training that help them make better decisions than an average person, but if the judicial system is going to be truly fair, we need to better understand the confounding factors that affect decision making. The decisions judges make have profound impacts on people’s lives, which makes it even more important to make sure our system accounts for the limits of human decision-making capabilities. This could be as simple as giving judges more snack breaks, who knows.


Danziger, S., et al. “Extraneous factors in judicial decisions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 108, no. 17, Nov. 2011, pp. 6889–6892., doi:10.1073/pnas.1018033108.

Gailliot, Matthew T., and Roy F. Baumeister. “The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control.” Personality and Social Psychology Review, vol. 11, no. 4, 2007, pp. 303–327., doi:10.1177/1088868307303030.

Muraven, Mark, and Roy F. Baumeister. “Self-Regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-Control resemble a muscle?” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 126, no. 2, 2000, pp. 247–259., doi:10.1037//0033-2909.126.2.247. 

Sweller, John. “Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning.” Cognitive Science, vol. 12, no. 2, 1988, pp. 257–285., doi:10.1207/s15516709cog1202_4.

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