You Protest Too Much, Methinks: Investigating the Features of Truthful and Fabricated Reports of Traumatic Experiences

Article excerpt

Abstract

Legal decision-makers frequently assess the credibility of reports of traumatic victimization. In this study, we compared the memory features and post-traumatic symptoms associated with truthful and malingered reports of trauma. Participants (N = 126) described in writing both a genuine and a fabricated traumatic experience (counterbalanced) and completed scales relating to the severity of the associated trauma symptoms. Relative to accounts of genuine trauma, the information in fabricated accounts was less plausible and contained fewer contextual details. However, truthful and false reports were qualitatively similar on other criteria such as coherence and relevance. Fabricated traumatic experiences were associated with extreme ratings on multiple, diverse psychological measures of emotional distress and a higher level of apparent post-traumatic stress disorder. However, most participants were able to "fool" widely used validity scales. Implications for evaluating the credibility of claims of victimization in legal cases are discussed.

Résumé

Les preneurs de décisions dans le domaine judiciaire doivent fréquemment évaluer la crédibilité des rapports de victimisation traumatique. Dans la présente étude, nous avons comparé les caractéristiques de la mémoire et des symptômes post-traumatiques associés à des comptes rendus de traumatismes véridiques et pathonimiques. Les participants (N = 126) ont décrit par écrit une expérience traumatique véritable et fabriquée (neutralisée) et ont rempli des échelles de gravité des symptômes des traumatismes afférents. En ce qui a trait aux comptes rendus de traumatismes véritables, l'information dans les comptes rendus fabriqués était moins plausible et contenait un moins grand nombre de détails contextuels. Cependant, les comptes rendus véridiques et pathonimiques étaient similaires d'un point de vue qualitatif à d'autres critères comme la cohérence et la pertinence. Les expériences traumatisantes fabriquées ont été associées à des évaluations extrêmes à des mesures psychologiques multiples et diverses de la détresse émotive et un niveau plus élevé de trouble stressant post-traumatique apparent. Cependant, la plupart des participants ont été en mesure de « déjouer » les échelles de validité généralement utilisées. Les implications pour l'évaluation de la crédibilité des réclamations de victimisation dans les cas juridiques ont fait l'objet de discussions.

In formulating their decisions of guilt and innocence, judges and juries must rely heavily on the stories told by complainants and witnesses. However, it has become clear that the assessment of witness credibility is a process fraught with error. In the 2001 inquiry into Thomas Sophonow's wrongful murder conviction in Manitoba, Justice Cory highlighted that many witnesses are "smooth and convincing liars" who provide false but convincing tales that can lead to miscarriages of justice. He advocated the need for a better understanding of deception among members of the judiciary. Deception is of particular concern in "he said, she said" cases in which allegations are accompanied by little evidence other than contradictory testimonials (e.g., Porter, Campbell, Birt, & Woodworth, 2003).

Combined with the problem of intentional deception, there is considerable evidence that legal decision-making is subject to a host of biases (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky, 1982). In particular, judges are influenced by schemas based on their past experiences with defendants and complainants (e.g., Greenberg & Ruback, 1982; Konecni & Ebbesen, 1982). For example, Kaufmann, Drevland, Wessel, Overskeid, and Magnussen (2003) found that credibility assessments in rape cases are based largely on the emotion expressed by the complainant rather than the content of the allegation itself. Porter, McCabe, Woodworth, and Peace (in press) found that those assessing credibility over-confident in their assessment abilities, which may contribute to a reliance on such simplistic heuristics and tunnel vision decision-making. …