Faculty in Focus: Saul Kassin, Professor of Psychology

This interview is the first in what will be a regular feature in the Record. Our hope is to introduce the student body to the wide variety of research being conducted by faculty members. Professor Kassin will be teaching Social Psychology and Psychology and the Law next semester and focuses his research on the decision making processes of juries.

What is your background? How did you become interested in psychology of law?

I got my Ph. D. in social psychology and right after I got my Ph. D., I took a post doctorate position in psychology at the University of Kansas where they had a jury research project underway.

So I went to the University of Kansas to study jury decision making, which is really a very nice kind of an applied aspect of the theoretical work I was doing in the area of how people form impressions of others. Jury context just seems ideal for that.

I took some classes in the law school and started to look at juries and, after interviewing jurors on actual trials, decided that the best way to actually study jurors is to recreate trials and simulate situations and bring in people to act as jurors, because I kept getting a lot of information from simulated mock juries that I could never get from actual jurors and I spent several years studying juries.

Then I became more and more interested in the evidence on which the jurors make their decisions and so I began looking at eyewitness testimony and the accuracy of eyewitnesses and the conditions that make witnesses more or less accurate. I started studying police interrogations and confessions and confession evidence.

I spent a year with the United States Supreme Court on a fellowship doing research in the federal courts in the federal judicial center in Washington and I spent a year at Stanford University in the psychology of law program taking courses at the law school and teaching courses in the psychology of law.

What type of research are you doing right now?

Well, I’ve got several students in the lab right now—basically we’re looking at the ways in which police are trained to get interrogations, to get confessions,whether that training is really as effective as they claim. For example, one of the studies that we’ve done in my lab which just got published was to actually have Williams students commit mock crimes—to do various things like shoplifting , vandalizing, breaking into a college building and such—and they knew it was a simulated crime.

But what we were interested in was if we had people who commit that crime and then they are brought into an interrogation room and interrogated and they are of course pleading their innocence because they are motivated to be seen as innocent. And then video tapes of those interrogations are shown—can people tell the difference between the innocent person who says ‘I didn’t do it’ and the guilty person who says ‘I didn’t do it,’ because trained interrogators say that they can make that judgment.

So we trained people—gave them the same training materials that are often given to detectives—and they couldn’t do it any better than the average person. We then took these interrogation tapes and showed them to 25 detectives in the state of Florida who varied in the amount of experience and training they had but who were generally very experienced and highly trained. And they couldn’t make those judgments any better than the average person either.

So we are creating crime simulation and interrogation simulations to see whether then we can model what goes on in actuality.

Has this research had much effect on the judicial field?

That’s an interesting question. I get asked to present this research all the time to groups of lawyers and judges so in that regard the research is being used to inform. More often than I would like I end up in court testifying as an expert witness in cases involving confession evidence.

It turns out that most people don’t know want goes on in a interrogation room and most people don’t psychologically appreciate the power of what goes on in interrogation. And so I’ve testified as an expert. I’ve given the talks. I’m actually working with a lawyer on some legislation that would make it mandatory for interrogations and interviews to be taped so that there is a clear, objective record of what transpired.

So, indirectly, yes, the work has been cited in several court opinions and rulings so I know that it has an impact— though it’s been having an impact primarily on a case by case basis. I’d rather see a grander scale impact, but I think we’re building toward something like that.

What is the impact you would like your research to have?

The more I see, the more I realize that to put judges and jurors in the best possible position to evaluate evidence, whether that evidence is an eyewitness identification or a statement given in the interrogation room, the best possible way to present the information is to have them watch a video tape of that evidence being collected.

If it’s an identification of a lineup being staged, they should watch a video tape of the line up and the witness making the identification; if it’s an interrogation or an interview with the suspect, they should watch the interview.

Jurors will make much more accurate judgment if they can actually see the information being gathered rather than getting a second hand description of that information. The closer we bring people to the events first-hand, the better judges they become.

What is the long-term direction of your research?

I’ve been moving in a long-term direction. The long-term direction is to create situations that maximize the jurors’ use of evidence.

When I first started looking at jurors and juror decision making, I went at it with the assumption that juries are biased, not particularly atttuned to evidence, that their attitudes determined their verdicts—and I was absolutely wrong.

It turns out that jurors are highly attuned to the evidence as the evidence is presented in the courtroom and juries will make the right judgment, I think, most of the time, provided they are given the right sample of the evidence.

So my research has really moved in a direction toward maximizing the quality of jury discussion making. Part of that is through looking at how trials are run.

I’ve been interested in ways of making jury decision better through altering trial procedure and making jury decisions better by giving them a better presentation of the evidence

Do you have any plans for the weekend?

Sunday night, Steve Fine and I will be at the Springsteen concert in Albany