Two Social Psychologists' Reflections on Situationism and the Criminal Justice System

Lee Ross and Donna Shestowsky

in Ideology, Psychology, and Law

Published in print January 2012 | ISBN: 9780199737512
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199918638 | DOI:

Series: Series in Political Psychology

Two Social Psychologists' Reflections on Situationism and the Criminal Justice System

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The criminal justice system relies on lay notions of culpability that are incompatible with contemporary social psychology, and arguably with reasonable standards of fairness and justice. A given wrongdoer’s actions are viewed in that field less as the product of stable disposition or “character” and more that of situation factors and their cumulative consequences than either lay or legal conceptions acknowledge. Moreover, the legal distinctions made between relevant and irrelevant mitigating factors are ones that social psychologists would deem uncompelling and even incoherent. While recognizing the impediments to dramatic systemic change, and the important role that public approval plays in maintaining the criminal justice system, this chapter questions whether justice can truly be served when the law’s theory of culpability is so fundamentally at odds with the lessons of social scientific research. It also considers the implications of a more enlightened view.

Keywords: character; situational factors; justice; social psychology; culpability; cumulative consequences; naïve realism

Chapter.  17070 words. 

Subjects: Social Psychology

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