OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Study suggests potential bias in date rape cases

11/05/2003

CORVALLIS - A new study suggests that a disparity of information presented to jurors in "he said/she said" date rape cases unintentionally skews the odds in favor of the defendants - and could result in fewer convictions.

In many date rape cases, the authors say, a defendant may choose not to testify, forcing the accuser to become the sole focus of the jury's attention. That increases the chances that they will see the accuser as responsible for the sexual acts that have taken place.

Results of the study have been accepted for publication in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Daniel M. Rempala was the lead author on the study, which he conducted as his master's thesis at the University of Toledo. Rempala is now on the faculty of Gaston College in North Carolina. His major professor and co-author on the paper, Frank Bernieri, now chairs the Department of Psychology at Oregon State University. Bernieri is a former OSU faculty member, who has spent the last several years at Toledo, then returned to Corvallis this fall. He was a visiting professor at OSU last spring term.

The researchers say when an accuser testifies and a defendant does not, the accuser becomes more "salient," or prominent in the eyes of the jury. The more vivid an event is - such as the magnified drama of a courtroom - the more likely individuals are to attach blame to the focus of the attention, all other things being equal.

Psychologists say these are well-known phenomena called "salience bias" and "vividness heuristic." Simply put, the lack of witnesses in a "he said/she said" trial puts the focus on the main source of testimony - the accuser.

It is a matter of context, Bernieri says.

"If a criminal's confession is videotaped such that the camera is looking over the shoulder of the cop with a full-face view of the defendant, people looking at the videotape are more likely to believe the confession," Bernieri explained. "On the other hand, if the exact same confession is videotaped where the camera is looking over the shoulder of the accused at a full-face view of the cop, people are more likely to think the confession was coerced.

"It becomes a question of who is more salient."

In their experiment, Rempala and Bernieri gave a panel of 93 participants (51 males, 42 females) a one-page vignette about a data rape. In this fictitious vignette, the accuser and defendant both say they went for a walk, and began kissing. But the accuser said the subsequent sexual act was forced, while the defendant said it was consensual.

The physical descriptions of the defendant and accuser were minimal, listing only the height, weight and gender. But when the accuser's religion, home address, college major, school, employment status and relationship status were added, her believability plummeted. The number of panelists who thought the male defendant was guilty decreased, from 80 percent down to 65 percent.

The only description of the defendant was height, weight and gender.

When similar innocuous demographic information about the defendant was added - and not available for the accuser - the percentage of people judging him guilty rose from 60 percent to 85 percent.

"What's particularly interesting about this study is that the information being added isn't even relevant to the case," Bernieri said.

When looked at in its entirety, the difference is profound, Bernieri says. When demographic information about the accuser was present and absent for the defendant, only 53 percent of the panelists went for the guilty verdict. When the demographic information was absent for the accuser and present for the defendant, 91 percent rendered a guilty verdict.

"You might think going in that a jury would be more sympathetic by getting to know the victim or the defendant," Bernieri said. "But what actually happens is that it causes them to focus more on that individual. This 'salience effect' and other factors - like the 'just world' hypothesis - are more compelling than empathy."

Rempala said in his study that when the victim takes the stand and provides a wealth of personal and behavioral information, some jurors may subconsciously use that data to differentiate themselves from the victim. It's an internal defense mechanism - part of the "just world" theory.

"The victim," Rempala said, "becomes easier to blame. [It] facilitates the belief that the jurors themselves will not suffer this horrible fate because they are different from the target."

The researchers say the findings do not apply to the case of professional basketball player Kobe Bryant because he already is a well-known, salient figure. The results are more relevant to cases where both the defendant and accuser are unknown to jurors.

Bernieri and Rempala say the findings suggest that the "information disparity" in date-rape cases - the result of having one person testify and the other not - may introduce a bias into court procedures that results in leniency for defendants.

"The difference in merely adding or subtracting innocuous demographic information in the study would have resulted in four out of 10 fewer convictions if played out in an actual courtroom," Bernieri said. "That is rather alarming."

Bernieri has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University. In 1992, when he previously was on the OSU faculty, he was one of two psychologists that year to receive the National Science Foundation's Young Investigator Award for his research on non-verbal behavior, perception accuracy, and face-to-face interactions of people.

He reviews research grants for the NSF and the National Institutes of Mental Health.