7. Psychological Theories of Crime

7.3 Cognitive-Behavioural Psychology in Law Enforcement

Dr. Jennifer Mervyn and Stacy Ashton, M.A.

Those who investigate and enforce the law are as human as those who offend and are just as susceptible to beliefs and attitudes that misrepresent objective reality. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that allow us to filter and process the massive amount of information we are faced with on a daily basis. Heuristics are necessary to allow humans to make decisions, but they can be affected by cognitive bias (Beck, 1963; Beck, 1995).

Confirmation bias is the tendency to over-value evidence that confirms our beliefs over evidence that counters our beliefs. For example, police will more often encounter marginalised individuals as criminals. They may form a belief that Indigenous or BIPOC individuals are more likely to be criminals than white individuals. This affects their behaviour going forward, as when they encounter non-white individuals, they seek evidence confirming this individual is engaged in criminal behaviour. Racial profiling is the inevitable result of confirmation bias, in which people of colour are more likely to be stopped by police in Canada than white people (Charman et al., 2017).

In-group bias is the tendency to trust peers and colleagues more than those outside your in-group. Police form a very strong “in-group,” as they are mutually dependent on one another for safety and support. In-group bias plays a role in identifying and managing inappropriate police behaviour, as complainants are less likely to be believed than police officers (Smith & Alpert, 2007).

The cognitive bias of criminal justice officials has been documented in the literature (see Meterko & Cooper, 2022) and influences how our society defines, investigates, and prosecutes criminal behaviour. These biases also influence the way police and prosecutors deal with the intersection of mental illness and criminal and criminalised behaviour.



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Jennifer Mervyn and Stacy Ashton, M.A. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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