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Brent Snook, B.A., M.Sc., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Psychology branch of Memorial University in St.Johns, Newfoundland. Contact him at bsnook@mun.ca or 709 864-3101 for more information.


January 21, 2013
By Brent Snook

901 words – MR _COLUMN – Science BEAT

Seeking empathy in an alibi

by Brent Snook

Jennifer Thompson was sexually assaulted in her apartment in the summer of 1984. The subsequent police investigation and legal proceedings resulted in the wrongful conviction of Ronald Cotton.

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The details contained in Cotton’s book about his ordeal – – suggest that the primary cause of the miscarriage of justice was Thompson’s misidentification, but confusion over his alibi was also a contributing factor.

Specifically, Cotton told the detective that it was Saturday night so he would “typically” have been at a club. Police interviews with his family revealed that he was seen sleeping on his mother’s couch at the time of the assault. The incorrect alibi and subsequent attempt to correct his mistaken memory led to the perception that he was lying and was viewed as an indication of guilt.

Cotton clearly found it difficult to create an accurate alibi for an innocuous date and time. Producing an inaccurate alibi, or not having one which is believed, is not unique to Cotton. The Innocence Project examined the details of the 250 cases where Americans were exonerated through DNA evidence and found that a false, weak or improperly corroborated alibi was present in many of those cases.

Let’s pause for a moment and complete a short task – it will put the rest of the article into the proper context. Please generate an alibi to account for three days ago at 9:15 pm. Think about all of the corroborating evidence for where you were at that time. How much evidence do you have? What is it? Can anyone other than your family or close friends vouch for you? Try this type of alibi-generation task with a family member. I will guess that both of you found it difficult to produce a detailed memory of events for that time. This sort of memory task is what investigators are asking (innocent) suspects to do.

The question asked by Elizabeth Olsen and Gary Wells in a 2012 paper, “The alibi-generation effect: Alibi-generation experience influences alibi evaluation,” was whether getting someone to generate their own alibi would make them more likely to believe somebody else’s (by developing more accurate expectations about this memory task).

The authors argued that some investigators underestimate the difficulty in creating an alibi. In fact, previous research has demonstrated that alibi generation for innocent people can be very difficult and they often have no evidence or very weak physical and person evidence.

An earlier study by Olson and Wells in 2004 showed that only nine per cent of alibis created had strong physical evidence and just six per cent could be corroborated by persons with no motivation to help the person.

Based on this and other research, the researchers predicted that getting alibi evaluators to create their own would make them appreciate the difficulty of creating them (be empathetic) and as a result, rate suspect alibis as more believable than if they had not created their own.

In the first experiment, participants were asked to either evaluate a criminal’s alibi before or after they generated their own. Presumably, those who create their own alibi first would be more likely to believe the criminal’s alibi than those who just evaluate the criminal’s with no thoughts about how difficult the task might be.

Participants were also asked to create an alibi for either three days ago or 30 days ago. It was assumed that creating their own from 30 days ago would be more challenging than three days ago and that this would further increase their belief in the suspect’s alibi.

Participants were assigned randomly to one of the four conditions. All participants were then asked to rate how much they believed the suspects alibi.

As anticipated, the results showed people who created their own alibi before evaluating the suspect’s rated the suspect’s alibi as more believable than those who evaluated it before creating their own. Interestingly, getting people to generate alibis from three days prior or 30 days prior did not matter.

In a second experiment, Olsen and Wells repeated the experiment but changed it slightly by telling an additional group of people about the difficulty in generating alibis. They also got people to think empathetically before doing the task to see if it would increase believability even further.

They replicated the finding that people who created their own alibi before evaluating the suspect’s rated it as more believable than those who did an evaluation before creating their own. Getting people to think empathetically had no impact on rating of alibi belief.

They also found that telling people about the difficulty of generating alibis was somewhat effective in increasing alibi believability but not as good as actually getting someone to create their own before judging the credibility of another person’s alibi.

The results of the two studies show that making someone aware of how difficult it can be to create an alibi (by getting them to do it themselves) lowers expectations about what a suspect should be able to produce.

Having an enhanced understanding of the memory process involved in alibi creation may ultimately lead officers to be more open-minded when making investigative decisions based on alibi evaluations.

BIO BOX

Brent Snook, B.A., M.Sc., Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Psychology branch of Memorial University in St.Johns, Newfoundland. Contact him at bsnook@mun.ca or 709 864-3101 for more information.