Social and Cognitive Psychology

Social psychology concerns the impact of social influences on human behavior. Social psychologists typically explain behavior in terms of situational factors, rather than dispositional factors. Cognitive psychology focuses on how humans think, reason, and remember. Cognitive psychologists are interested in understanding the influences on thoughts and thought processes. Although these fields are distinct sub-disciplines of psychology, and students are traditionally trained in one or another, we combine them in this description because there is considerable overlap in their application to the law. For example, one legal topic that has interested both social and cognitive psychologists is the psychology of the jury. This institution can be analyzed by a social psychologist as a collection of individuals who must listen to, persuade, discuss, and perhaps compromise with each other. That same institution can be examined by a cognitive psychologist as a medium for understanding both individual and group memory processes, decision making abilities, and problem solving skills.

Like developmental psychologists, most social and cognitive psychologists with legal interests are employed by colleges and universities where they teach and conduct research. Less frequently, they are employed by governmental agencies, private foundations, or non-profit organizations doing some combination of advocacy and policy formulation and analysis. Still other social and cognitive psychologists may be involved with the law as independent consultants. Some individuals who offer trial consulting services have been trained in traditional programs in social or cognitive psychology, for example. Any of these psychologists may be asked on occasion to offer expert opinions in court on issues related to social behaviors or thought processes.

Activities of Social and Cognitive Psychologists

Many social and cognitive psychologists have become increasingly interested in conducting scientific research. One setting–the courtroom–has captured the attention of both social and cognitive psychologists because it provides a rich laboratory for psychological inquiry. In addition to questions related to jury decision making, a myriad of other issues related to the adversary system can be addressed by careful psychological research: judges’ decision making capacities and the determinants of their sentences; criminal defendants’ willingness to accept plea bargains, civil litigants’ attempts at negotiation and settlement; the effectiveness of alternatives to trial (e.g., mediation, arbitration); litigants’ beliefs about the justness and correctness of the legal proceedings; individuals’ propensity to sue; and the specter of litigation affecting professional and personal relationships. Psychologists who work on these topics apply social and/or cognitive psychological theorizing to these complex legal questions. Not only has this work helped to refine psychological theory, it has also opened (if only a little) the historically closed do

ors of the courthouse and the state house to scientific scrutiny.

Although psychologists’ interest in the veracity of testimony can be traced back to early in the 20th century, much recent work has concerned the memory capabilities of victims and witnesses to crimes and accidents. Research on these questions has its foundation in basic theorizing about human perception and memory, and psychologists who work on these issues typically have a firm grounding in those theoretical realms. Recent studies have focused on factors that influence the reliability of human memories for complex, fast-moving, and fear-arousing incidents. A related topic that has generated both a great deal of interest and considerable contentiousness is the reliability of repressed memories. Cognitive psychologists occasionally testify about the results of these studies as expert witnesses in trials that involve eyewitness testimony or repressed memories. The contentiousness often concerns the extent to which research findings can be applied to real-world situations.

A number of other issues have captured the attention of social psychologists who apply their knowledge of psychology to the law. Among these topics are regulatory compliance, discrimination, race and ethnicity, and sexual harassment and sexual assault. Other topics of interest to cognitive psychologists include investigative interviewing, psycholinguistic analysis of judicial language, and probabilistic reasoning and decision making about complex scientific and statistical information. Data on these topics and similar others are generated by scientific methodologies and are then disseminated to the legal community by way of advocacy, expert testimony, description in appellate briefs, or via publication or presentation to legal audiences.

Educational and Training Requirements

Social and cognitive psychologists who work on law-related topics are typically trained in traditional social or cognitive psychology graduate programs that may or may not have a special focus on the law. These students often work with a faculty member who has law-related interests. Some recently-developed programs offer psychology and law as a minor and a few others elevate the program to a status comparable to more traditional areas of psychology. On occasion, a student who has received traditional graduate training in social or cognitive psychology and who wishes to move in the direction of psychology and law can do so during post-doctoral training, although such training is not necessary. Social and cognitive psychologists are not required to complete an internship and are not licensed.

Social and cognitive psychologists who work in the legal arena may or may not have formal legal training. Although some knowledge of the law will result in more legally sophisticated research and advocacy, formal legal training is certainly not a requirement. In fact, many of these professionals tend to learn about the law by immersing themselves in psychological work that is related to law and legal processes. The Ph.D. degree is required for employment at most colleges and universities and for some administrative positions in agencies. Students who opt for a masters degree may have some difficulty finding a research position although they may have more luck in the advocacy and policy realms.

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