The Influence of Nondiagnostic Information and Victim Stereotypes on Perceptions of Guilt

Article excerpt

Abstract: Recent research has revealed that increasing nondiagnostic information about victims in rape trial scenarios decreases guilty verdicts. This finding contradicts several existing theoretical positions that predict nondiagnostic information about a target is beneficial to that target. Three experiments are presented to resolve this incongruity. It is hypothesized that greater nondiagnostic victim information can increase use of victim stereotypes. As such, we predicted that increasing nondiagnostic victim information decreases the number of guilty verdicts in trials featuring strongly negative victim stereotypes (e.g., rape trials), but not trials without strongly negative victim stereotypes (e.g., assault trials). In Study 1, nondiagnostic victim information in an assault trial scenario led to more-rather than fewer-guilty verdicts. In Study 2, increasing nondiagnostic victim information led to increased negative stereotyped perceptions in a rape trial scenario but not an assault trial scenario. In Study 3, nondiagnostic information showed no difference on the impact on the perception of male versus female victims of assault. Finally, we demonstrate the mechanisms by which nondiagnostic target information alters trial verdicts.

Keywords: assault trials, nondiagnostic information, victim stereotypes.

INTRODUCTION

During the course of a jury trial, many factors can sway the opinions of jurors. Some factors are obvious and intuitive (e.g., eyewitness confidence, opinions of other jurors, the presence of a videotaped confession), while other influential factors are not obvious or intuitive (e.g., the order in which information is presented, jury size; Brewer and Wells 2006; Horowitz and Bordens 2002; MacCoun 1989). In the present research, we examined the relationship between perceptions of guilt and one not-so-obvious factor, the presence of nondiagnostic information about the parties involved in the trial.

Nondiagnostic Information

Diagnostic information has been defined as "information relevant to the judgment in question" (Kunda and Thagard 1996:291). Thus, nondiagnostic information is information irrelevant to the judgment in question, and in a criminal trial, nondiagnostic information would be information irrelevant to the defendant's guilt.

Nondiagnostic information about a target can take many forms (e.g., demographic information, visual information). Under direct observation, people give off a wealth of information by their actions, whether through their tone of voice, body posture, or facial expressions. Observers use this information to judge a target's personal attributes even when the observer does not have the luxury of viewing the target for extended periods of time or across multiple situations (Ambady, Bernieri, and Richeson 2001). In many cases, salient features of the target, such as bodily cues that trigger stereotypes, are also used to form impressions. Initial impressions based on such limited information can be generated quickly and can also be quite rigid (Ambady et al. 2001).

Written, descriptive information can be used to create a similar effect. Researchers (Efran 1974; Landy and Aronson 1969) have shown that defendants in trial scenarios who are described positively (e.g., attractive, professional) are less likely to be found guilty, whereas targets who are described negatively (e.g., unattractive, manual laborer) are more likely to be found guilty. Even though this descriptive information is irrelevant to the guilt or innocence of a target, these results are not surprising, since impression formation studies have shown that observers judge and respond to targets with enviable characteristics more positively across a variety of situations (Eagly et al. 1991; Uleman, Newman, and Moskowitz 1996).

What happens, though, when the descriptive information is unrelated to the case at hand and is not obviously positive or negative? It is thought that nondiagnostic information about a target can also serve to increase the salience of that target. …