February, 2017

Researchers Identify ‘Bad is Black’ Effect


            In a series of recent studies, researchers at New York University have identified what they called the “bad is black” effect in perceptions of whether a person committed a criminal act.  “[P]eople used a ‘bad is black’ heuristic in social judgment and assumed that immoral acts were committed by people with darker skin tones, regardless of the racial background of those immoral actors.”


            Six studies were conducted, with two reviewing whether the media portrayed celebrities and politicians with darker visuals or imaging when a story contained negative content.  The two studies found that articles “containing negative content were more likely to appear alongside darker-colored photographs,” and the darker-imaging was true “regardless of the politician’s race or gender.”


            Other studies asked participants to choose the “color of the soul” of people in surveillance photographs by picking a shade along a spectrum from black to white.  The participants were told one person in the photographs committed a good deed and another committed an immoral act.  The participants who thought the immoral person had a darker-colored soul were found to also think the person had darker skin.   The researchers concluded that people are more likely when hearing about an evil act to believe the perpetrator had darker skin, regardless of the actual race of the perpetrator.


            The researchers noted that there are historic associations “[a]cross time and cultures” between color and morality, i.e., daytime and light are good, “bad is black,” that may have “implications for the probity of eyewitness identifications.”  The researchers concluded that “it is possible that eyewitnesses may be apt to misremember wrongdoers as having darker skin than they actually do—and, consequently, to choose innocent darker skinned people from a line up rather than guilty lighter skinned alternatives.”


Sources:  Daisy Grewal, “The ‘Bad Is Black’ Effect,” scientificamerican.com, January 17, 2017: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-bad-is-black-effect/; Abstract: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih .gov/pubmed/27856725. Study: http://journals.sage pub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0146167216669123


Manipulating Memory and Implanting False Memories


Study shows one-half of people remember events that did not happen

            A recent British 400-participant study found that about 30% of participants “remembered” memories after being told of them and imagining them, and another 23% accepted the false story to some degree.  Notably, when shown photographs purporting to be of the remembered or imagined event, the participants were less likely to actually develop a false memory.


            “Even under highly controlled laboratory conditions, memory researchers struggle to define and observe memory.  How, then, can we expect therapists, forensic investigators, medical personnel, human resource staff, or jurists to be any better at this task?”


Source: Shanika Gunaratna, “Study: Half of people ‘remember’ events that never happened,” cbsnews.com, December 9, 2016: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ half-of-people-remember-events-that-never-happened/


‘Memory-hacking’ psychologist can implant false memories


            Dr. Julia Shaw, a criminal psychologist, and senior lecturer and researcher at the Department of Law and Social Sciences at London South Bank University, was interviewed in a recent article about implanting false memories.  Dr. Shaw was quoted as saying, “I am a memory hacker … I use the science of memory to make you think you did things that never happened.” Dr. Shaw does that “to show that the interrogation process can really distort memories, in consistent ways.” To implant a false memory “you try to get someone to confuse their imagination with their memory.”  Through repetition, over the course of a couple of weeks, or less, a person finds it “harder to decipher imagination, versus a memory coming back.”


Sources: Kate Lunau, “A ‘Memory Hacker’ Explains How to Plant False memories in People’s Minds,” motherboard.vice.com, September 14, 2016: http://motherboard.vice.com/read/memory-hacker-implant-false-memories-in-peoples-minds-julia-shaw-memory-illusion?utm_source=mbfb. Dr. Shaw’s web-site: http://www.drjuliashaw.com/.  Related: Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter, “Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime,” pss.sagepub.com, January 14, 2015: http://nebula.wsimg.com/ce2 babe46721a32c861f1a646c2836aa?AccessKeyId=AF62ECFBCD8F6D95BACE&disposition=0&alloworigin=1


by Neil Leithauser

Associate Editor