Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Alibi Believability: The Impact of Salacious Alibi Activities

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Alibi Believability: The Impact of Salacious Alibi Activities

Article excerpt

An alibi is a claim that you were elsewhere at the time a crime was committed (Olson & Wells, 2004). Alibis are important because Wells et al. (1998) found that in 11 out of 40 wrongful conviction cases, innocent individuals provided either weak or no alibi evidence and were later found to be guilty of crimes they did not commit. It has been suggested that weak alibis tend to lack supportive physical evidence (Olson & Wells, 2004). However, when alibis are offered as evidence at trial in the United States and Canada, supportive physical evidence is unusual (Burke & Turtle, 2003). Confounding this issue, jurors expect alibi statements to be extremely specific and accurate. However, these episodic memories are not typically encoded with the expectation that such intensive analysis will be necessary and as a result, people do not tend to form precise memories of everything that they do (Burke, Turtle, & Olson, 2007).

Despite the great weight alibis can carry in the courtroom, alibi research is limited. Alibi believability research has generally been focused on the strength of the alibi evidence. Alibis supported by strong physical (e.g., receipt) or person (e.g., store clerk) evidence have been found to be more believable than alibis that were lacking such evidence (Culhane & Hosch, 2004; Olson & Wells, 2004). Further, alibis were perceived as weaker when in the context of a trial compared to a police investigation because of the likely inference that the suspect at trial must not have had strong corroborative alibi evidence (Sommers & Douglass, 2007).

Olson and Wells (2004) noted that an alibi's surface traits (details of the alibi story provided) typically do not make an alibi strong or weak, but rather it is the corroborative evidence that is key. These authors suggested that surface traits may matter when it comes to alibi believability only when there is weak corroborative evidence. In the current study, we examined whether the salaciousness of the alibi activities affects believability. It is possible that suspects may have engaged in activities at the time of the crime such as having an affair, breaking the law in an unrelated incident, or watching X-rated material. Suspects in such a position may face a difficult decision: admit to socially/morally unattractive behavior or lie about their whereabouts.

How would jurors, police investigators, and judges react to salacious alibis? In impression management research it has been suggested that, typically, people are concerned about what others think of them and like to project positive images of themselves to others (Leary & Kowalski, 1990). Suspects who are charged with a crime and have salacious alibis must weigh the costs and benefits of admitting to the salacious activities. The potential benefits are that their admission could be viewed as a sign of honesty because evaluators may assume that the only reason suspects would admit to unflattering and unexpected information in the course of a police investigation was because it was true (e.g., Lalljee, Watson, & White, 1982). The potential costs of admission are that the suspects may be viewed negatively by evaluators (e.g., police, jurors) and, if they are not believed, they could be charged with the crime in question.

Implicit personality theory (Ashmore, Griffo, & Green, 2007; Schneider, 1973) could support either positive or negative views of suspects with salacious alibis. An evaluator who attributes the alibi admission to honesty would likely have several positive views of the suspect (e.g., honest in the face of pressure to be dishonest). However, evaluators who do not attribute the admission to honesty may view the suspect negatively because they would associate negative attributes with the socially unattractive behavior (e.g., Ashmore et al., 2007). Additionally, the negativity bias suggests that negative traits are weighted more heavily in impression formation than are positive traits (e. …

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