- Published: November 21, 2012
Researchers systematically studied how people hold others responsible for crime depending on the state of mind of the perpetrator; in other words, do people distinguish between intentional acts, knowing acts, reckless acts, negligent acts, and so on? The results of the study show that the gradation between legal distinction and people's implicit distinctions don't align: in come cases, the legal gradient is finer than most people's, and in other cases people make distinctions that the legal system does not. Examples: Legally, committing a bad act with knowledge that it will cause a negative side effect is equivalent to committing the bad act intentionally, but subject distinguished between the two cases. Knowing someone will be hurt, but not knowing when that person will be hurt, reduces judgments of intentionality. The legal system distinguishes between acts that will /certainly/ harm another and acts that put another indivial /at risk/ of harm, but subjects did not distinguish between these categories. It turns out that subjects assign much higher levels of liability to perpetrators even for low levels of risk for the victim or small amounts of prior knowledge on the part of the perpetrator.The results have important implications for the state of the legal system. The mismatches and discontinuities between human judgment and legal judgement demonstrate that our legal system is not being used appropriately by juries. In the same way that laws are being passed to account for known psychological biases (e.g. hindsight bias, self-serving bias, optimism bias) and their effects in the legal system, our legal processes should be crafted in away consistent with the ways humans judge other's actions—or at least in a way that brings inconsistencies to light explicitly so they can be accounted for in the courtroom.