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Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Countering cognitive biases on experts’ objectivity in court

Kathryn A. LaFortune
Monitor on Psychology
Vol. 53 No. 6
Print version: page 47

Mental health professionals’ opinions can be extremely influential in legal proceedings. Yet, current research is inconclusive about the effects of various cognitive biases on experts’ objectivity when making forensic mental health judgments and which biases most influence these decisions, according to a 2022 study in Law and Human Behavior by psychologists Tess Neal, Pascal Lienert, Emily Denne, and Jay Singh (Vol. 46, No. 2, 2022). The study also pointed to the need for more research on which debiasing strategies effectively counter bias in forensic mental health decisions and whether there should be specific policies and procedures to address these unique aspects of forensic work in mental health.

In the study, researchers conducted a systematic review of the relevant literature in forensic mental health decision-making. “Bias” was not generally defined in most of the available studies reviewed in the context of researching forensic mental health judgments. Their study noted that only a few forms of bias have been explored as they pertain specifically to forensic mental health professionals’ opinions. Adversarial allegiance, confirmation bias, hindsight bias, and bias blind spot have not been rigorously studied for potential negative effects on forensic mental health expert opinions across different contexts.

The importance of addressing these concerns is heightened when considering APA’s Ethics Code provisions that require psychologists to decline a professional role if bias may diminish their objectivity (See, Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, Section 3.06). Similarly, the Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychologists advises forensic practitioners to decline participation in cases when potential biases may impact their impartiality or to take steps to correct or limit the effects of the bias (Section 2.07). That said, unlike in other professions where tasks are often repetitive, decision-making in the field of forensic psychology is impacted by the unique nature of the various referrals that forensic psychologists receive, making it even more difficult to expect them to consider and correct how their culture, attitudes, values, beliefs, and biases might affect their work. They engage in greater subjectivity in selecting assessment tools from a large array of available tests, none of which are uniformly adopted in cases, in part because of the wide range of questions experts often must answer to assist the court and the current lack of standardized methods. Neither do experts typically receive immediate feedback on their opinions. This study also noted that the only debiasing strategy shown to be effective for forensic psychologists was to “consider the opposite,” in which experts ask themselves why their opinions might be wrong and what alternatives they may have considered.