10 Things Police Get Wrong About Psychology

Researchers tested police on major misconceptions about the psychology of policing

It’s reasonable to expect the police to know the basic facts about psychology that are vital to properly doing their job, but according to a recent study published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, which tested a small sample of British police officers, many of them don’t. The researchers found that the police didn’t fare any better than the average man on the street, and in some cases their knowledge was somewhat worse. Below are a few of the misconceptions that Dr. Julia Shaw and her colleagues tested the police on:

 1.      “When people lie, they look up and to the left.”

FALSE! The old wives tale that liars look up to the right (not the left) is believed to have originated in the mysterious world of neuro-linguistic programming, but it had never been empirically tested, until three years ago when it was proven wrong in a study by Richard Wiseman who found absolutely no correlation between eye gaze and lying. The phrase “not even wrong” comes to mind. The misconception was believed by 63 percent of police and 67 percent of the general public.


2.      “The death sentence is an effective way to deter criminal activity.”

FALSE! There is no evidence that the death penalty deters crime. Police fared only slightly worse than the general public, with 45.5 percent answering incorrectly compared to 42.9 percent of control participants.


3.      “We never forget the source of our knowledge.”

FALSE! This was one of the misconceptions where a minority of police really let their side down: 18.2 percent of police believed this myth, compared to 5.4 percent of the general population. We forget the source of our knowledge all the time.


4.      “Eyewitnesses are always the most reliable source of case-related information.”

FALSE! Psychologists have known for a very long time that eyewitness testimony is incredibly unreliable. This message doesn’t seem to have got through to police however: 18.2 percent of officers still incorrectly believed this misconception, a score only 5 percentage points better than the general public. This is particularly worrying because eyewitnesses still remain the most important evidence in most convictions, a fact that only half of officers believed.

5.      “Most mentally ill individuals are violent.”

FALSE! The mentally ill are less likely than the general population to engage in violence, while being more likely to be the victims of violence. Police fared a little better than the general population, with 15 percent believing this myth, compared to 21 percent of the public.

 6.      Memory is like a video camera.”

FALSE! It is certainly not news that our memories are vulnerable to error and manipulation, but the message doesn’t seem to have got through to 14 percent of the police officers, which is only slightly worse than the 9 percent of the general population who agreed with this statement.

 7.      “The ultimate goal of any interrogation should be gaining a confession.”

FALSE! Once upon a time in the dark days of policing (also known as the 1950s), interrogations existed primarily to extract confessions. Now, we know better. Not only does coercion lead to false confessions, but also it is simply an ineffective tactic. Police are now trained to use interviews to gather as much information as possible, rather than to manipulate suspects. Police were more informed than the 41 percent of the general public who still believe the aim of interrogations is to gain a confession, but 27 percent still believed the myth. Worryingly, a similar number of police (25 percent) actually believed that “pressuring individuals to confess is the best way to find out the truth.”

8.      “Accurate memories of childhood sexual abuse usually arise years after the abuse”

FALSE! The misconception that memories of childhood sexual abuse need to be recovered has been dubbed “The Most Dangerous Idea in Mental Health.” It has long been debunked, but only after sparking one of the most bizarre moral panics in living memory. Psychologists who believed they could recover memories from patients made a series of allegations about widespread satanic ritual abuse, after decades of inquiry it became overwhelmingly clear that the recovered memories were virtually exclusively false memories. If memories can be repressed at all, at the very least it is a phenomenon that is extremely rare. Astoundingly, a massive 68 percent of police officers still believe this myth, a number that is precisely the same for the general public.

 9.      Police can tell when a suspect is lying.”

FALSE! Police should know better than anyone that this statement simply isn’t remotely true. Amazingly, 32 percent of police agreed with this statement, compared to only 13 percent of the general public, which perhaps is somewhat less surprising.


10.  People cannot have memories of things that never actually happened.”

FALSE! The creation of false memories has been repeatedly demonstrated both in the laboratory and in the real world. These “implanted memories,” which people were coerced into believing were their own memories, have ranged from being lost in a mall to having tea with Prince Charles. Astoundingly, 18 percent of police and 8 percent of the general public still believe that this is impossible.

Curiously, while overall the police officers weren’t any worse than the public at getting the answers correct, they were more confident that their beliefs were correct. Importantly, the differences between the police officers’ individual answers and the answers of the public weren’t statistically significant due to the study's tiny sample size and the effect of controlling for multiple comparisons. It’d certainly be interesting to see the study conducted on a larger scale, until then we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions about the beliefs of the police except for the fact that most people, police included, are likely largely misinformed regarding many basic facts of criminal psychology.

Follow Simon Oxenham @Neurobonkers on TwitterFacebookRSS or join the mailing list, for weekly analysis of science and psychology news. 

Reference: Chaplin, C., & Shaw, J. (2015). Confidently Wrong: Police Endorsement of Psycho-Legal Misconceptions. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 1-9.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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