Understanding the emotional victim effect: Does rape complainant distress influence credibility judgments in criminal trials?

Nitschke, F. T. (University of Queensland), McKimmie, B. M. (University of Queensland), Vanman, E. J. (University of Queensland)

Rape cases have a disproportionately high attrition rate and low conviction rate compared to other criminal offences (Jehle, 2012). Research suggests that jurors are more likely to convict a defendant of rape when they perceive the complainant to be credible (Ellison & Munro, 2009). Despite the fact that emotional demeanour is not related to witness honesty or accuracy, distressed rape complainants are often perceived to be more credible than complainants who present with controlled affect. We report on two studies exploring the effect that complainant emotional demeanour has on credibility judgments. In study 1, we conducted a systematic review, meta-analysis and p-curve analysis of the experimental simulated decision-making literature on the influence of complainant emotional demeanour on complainant credibility (k = 20). Results suggest that distressed demeanour significantly increases perceptions of female rape complainant credibility, with a robust small to moderate effect size. In study 2, participants read a trial synopsis in which the ambiguity of the complainant’s emotional display was manipulated through images accompanying the synopsis. Results suggest researchers should work towards developing effective interventions to prevent complainant emotion from influencing credibility judgments made by criminal justice professionals and jurors.

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Gender and Prejudice