The objectivity demand: experiences and behaviors of psychologists in capital case evaluations
Mental health professionals who work in the legal system are bound by ethical standards to practice objectively and to leave personal beliefs and opinions out of their work; however, whether objectivity is practiced is an empirical question. This series of studies was designed to examine the effect of human bias and error in clinical forensic evaluations. Four specific aims were achieved: 1) integrating quantitative and qualitative methods in compiling descriptive information about forensic psychologists' occupational socialization processes, awareness of biases, capital punishment attitudes, and behaviors in capital case evaluations; 2) investigating how psychologists' personal attitudes toward capital punishment influence data interpretation and conclusions in assessments of capital defendants; 3) comparing evaluator awareness of bias to implicit bias; and 4) generating hypotheses for future research on bias recognition and mitigation. The studies involved a three-part mixed-method plan, starting with a qualitative interview with board-certified psychologists (N = 20). The purpose of the first study was to explore forensic psychologists' thoughts about and experiences with potential biases. An unexpected wealth of data emerged regarding strategies psychologists use to mitigate the effects of biases. Twenty seven unique bias correction strategies were discovered. Study two surveyed a large national sample of forensic psychologists (N = 334). Psychologists' personal attitudes toward capital punishment systematically predicted from whom they were willing to accept capital case referrals. This novel finding has not been documented elsewhere in the literature. An analysis of actual capital case reports was undertaken in the third study to examine the report-writing behavior of forensic psychologists (N= 122 reports). Results suggest psychologists act in more biased ways in than they think they do. Individual clinicians accounted for a large portion of the variance (up to 68%) in several outcome variables indicative of potential bias. Since bias is an issue worthy of concern, the field has a duty to teach new practitioners to become aware of and minimize the effects of potential biases. The strategies discussed herein may be beneficial for inclusion in clinical training programs to emphasize objectivity in the process of clinical judgment and decision-making.