Mental Shortcuts

Jurors are a fundamental part of the legal system, and the role of this position is to listen to evidence presented during a trial, and decide on the guilt of the defendant (Queensland Courts, 2014). It is important this decision is based on factual evidence from the trial and not other information, prejudices or biases, or on widespread and oversimplified portrayals of particular groups, known as stereotypes. The use of mental shortcuts, or heuristics, within jurors can mean that a decision of guilt is based on social categorisation, such as gender or race, and the corresponding stereotypes rather than on facts (Hornsey, 2014).

Gordon and Bindrim et al. ’s study (1988) focussed on examining the effect of defendant race and type of crime on simulated juror decisions. The study was conducted by randomly assigning 56 undergraduate students (of equal black to white ratio) to one of four crime descriptions, with the independent stereotype variables manipulated. After reading the descriptions, students recommended jail terms and bail amounts, and commented on the severity of the crime. The results of the study supported the hypothesis that crime type mattered in relation to defendant race.

For example, the white embezzler received a longer jail sentence than the black embezzler, and reverse for the burglary crimes. These results highlighted the importance of crime type associated with race for decisions of guilt; however, the procedure and consequential questions did not include likelihood of guilt, and the actual guilt difference between the races in each circumstance is not known (Gordon & Bindrim et al. , 1988). Dean and Mack et al. ’s study (2000) aimed to determine if stereotypes of gender and race impacted on guilt likelihood in juror decision making.

Similarly to Gordon and Bindrim et al. ’s study (1988), a minimal sample size of 42 undergraduate students, of various races (35 White) and genders (30 Female) between the ages of 18 and 22 years old, were recruited through the incentive of academic credit. The subjects were given police reports, with gender and race manipulated and the crime associated being either assault or theft. The results determined that gender, and not racial, stereotypes applied in decision making and consequently males were found guilty more often.

While the study highlighted gender stereotypes influential role in determination of guilt, the procedure did not include the assessment of crime type, through classification into gender- or race-orientation (Dean & Mack et al. , 2000). To test this theory of gender stereotypes in decision making and relative likelihood of guilt in the present study, a large sample size of 674 participants (460 Female) of undergraduate students completed a survey after reading a randomly allocated, gender manipulated case.

The participants read hypothetical scenarios, where the defendant, either male or female, was charged with either assault (male orientated crime) or shoplifting (female orientated crime), and decided on the likelihood of guilt. The rationale for undertaking the study was to determine if there was a gender bias against male defendants, resulting in a higher level of a guilty verdict, and whether crime type impacted the decision.

Based on the studies conducted by Dean and Mack et al. (2000) and Gordon and Bindrim et al. 1988), it can be assumed that if gender stereotypes matter in likelihood of guilt, the current study will result in a more guilty defendant when described as male rather than female and charged with assault. It is expected this pattern would be reversed if the defendant was charged with shoplifting. DISCUSSION The current study investigated the effect of gender on likelihood of guilt, in particular whether male defendants were more likely to be found guilty over female counterparts, and whether the crime type in question was a key influence of guilt likelihood.

Prior to commencement of the study, it was expected that males would be found more guilty in male orientated crimes and females more guilty in the event of a female orientated crime. The findings of the literature piece Gordon and Bindrim et al. (1988) suggest that the association between crime type and race play a key role in the decision of guilt, while Dean and Mack et al. (2000) established that gender, and not racial, stereotypes applied in determination of guilt.

In both studies, it was found that there was a higher chance of the defendant being found guilty in a crime typically associated with them, such as a woman being found guilty more often than men in a female-orientated crime (i. e. shoplifting), and the opposite for a male-orientated crime (i. e. assault). These conclusions were not supported by the results of the current study, as there was no difference between the genders in terms of guilt likelihood in various crime scenarios.

An explanation for this result is the motivation and ability level of the participants. In this case, these factors are at a higher level, due to completing the study in the first tutorial and knowing it was used for assessment purposes, meaning that the central (logical) route to decision making was most likely used. A limitation of this study was the lack of its applicability to real life juror situations and decisions.

In comparison to the study conducted, it is possible that after several days of deliberation, jurors begin to lack motivation and rely on the peripheral (emotional) route to reach a decision of guilt, meaning stereotypes or heuristics could influence the decision. The guilt likelihood in the study was also an individual decision, rather than a group one, and therefore individual opinions make the decision; however, it also means that the decision isn’t influenced by other people.

The main strength of the study conducted is that the information was given as a written trial summary. Due to this presentation, the important information is not diluted amongst trivial details and the likelihood of guilt decision is based on the important information in the trial summary. While this means that the reader focuses on the essential facts, it also means that the composer of the summary holds control over what the reader knows, and can manipulate their view through the language use and information sequencing.

To further develop the research carried out, a larger variety between the case study defendants should be investigated. In this study, only the gender and corresponding crime were manipulated (i. e. men and the male-orientated crime of assault, and women with shoplifting); however, other demographics such as race, age, family situation and whether it was a first offence or not could be explored. This exploration could be used to determine the characteristics of the most likely to be guilty defendant.