The Effects of Neuroscientific Framing on Legal Decision Making
Corey Allen is a graduate research fellow in the Georgia State University Neuroscience and Philosophy departments with a concentration in Neuroethics. He is a member of the Cooperation, Conflict, and Cognition Lab, and his research investigates (1) the ethical and legal implications of neuropredictive models of high-risk behavior, (2) the role of consciousness in attributions of moral agency, and (3) the impact of neurobiological explanations in legal and moral decision making.
|Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Typically, research on the behavioral implications of neuroscientific discourse focuses on an actor’s moral responsibility and individual control of his/her future actions. It is conjectured that these topics of interest are due to laypeople’s proclivity to make (potentially faulty) assumptions regarding what caused the act and how much control the actor had in that process (4). In other words, painting a picture in which the actor’s brain activity arises prior to “them” realizing it leads to assumptions that his/her actions are nothing more than middleman in a larger causal chain and are, therefore, events that “they” have no control over. For example, Vohs & Schooler (2008) found that when participants were exposed to a deterministic message (i.e. an argument that behavior is a direct result of genetic and environmental factors, and thus, unchangeable), they were more likely to cheat on a task, presumably because they saw themselves as unable to do otherwise (5). Furthermore, neuroscientific discourse can affect how individuals treat others. When exposed to neuroscientific information (whether it be an entire semester of an introductory course in neuroscience or just a magazine blurb), people are less likely to be overly punitive when deciding how to respond to an individual’s bad actions (6). Seemingly, due to assumptions about causality, we are more likely to see others’ actions as being caused by their brain instead of being caused by “them,” leading to the intuition that they are now less morally responsible for their bad action and therefore less deserving of punishment.
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While most experiments aiming to find the effects of neuroscientific explanations in courtroom settings have found modestly mitigating (if any) effects on punishment (8, & 9, & 10), two studies in particular, by Aspinwall (2012) and Fuss (2015), show reasons to think that the “double-edged sword” of neuroscientific evidence is more than just theoretical (11 & 12). These studies posed the question of the effect of neuroscientific explanations on judges, American and German, respectively. Both studies found similar mitigating effects – the inclusion of a biological defense in the trial decreased attributions of legal responsibility and, furthermore, decreased the punishment recommended. But, on the other hand, both studies also found potentially aggravating effects. Aspinwall, for example, found that as mitigating post-hoc rationalizations (such as decreases in perceived moral culpability) increased with the introduction of a biological defense, so did mentions of balancing this effect with similar aggravating rationalizations (taking into account the offender’s future danger to society). Comparably, Fuss also reported an increase in judges’ recommendations for involuntary civil commitment. Though these results are certainly indicative and supportive of the notion of the “double-edged sword,” these findings rely heavily on open-ended question analyses instead of on direct punitive and incapacitative measures.
|Figure 1. Neurobiological evidence mitigated sentences relative to behavioral evidence and no evidence. Similarly, treatable conditions evoked significantly shorter sentences than untreatable conditions.
What do our results suggest?
|Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Further down the line, this research can also educate the judges making these decisions about how certain framing effects might alter their recommended sentences. It is important to note that this education doesn’t stop solely with the effect of framing of sentencing but also includes more fine grained effects on notions of moral and legal responsibility, causation, and culpability. Though the jury is out on how this education would curb these certain framing susceptibilities, an increased recognition of, and interest in, these effects have the potential to inform the creation of additional safeguards within the legal system- safeguards designed to better protect the inherent tension between offender rights and public safety.
Want to cite this post?
Allen, C. (2018). The Effects of Neuroscientific Framing on Legal Decision Making. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2018/04/the-effects-of-neuroscientific-framing.html