President's Report 2006 | Research

Lab expected to lead to better legal decisions

Dr. Brent Snook will research decision making in the legal system. (Photo by Leslie Vryenhoek)

A sizeable grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) will help to make Memorial home to Canada’s first Bounded Rationality and Law Lab – a facility for innovative research into decision-making in the legal system.

Dr. Brent Snook, a professor of applied social psychology, said the updated facility will offer much-needed space to accommodate a growing interest in the work he and several colleagues are doing.

“Our research is trying to understand how people involved in the legal system go about making their decisions,” explained Dr. Snook. He offered examples: a victim decides whether or not to report a crime; a police officer has to exercise discretion in making an arrest; judges determine whom to release into the community. “Given how consequential these kinds of decisions are, it’s important to ask ‘can we improve the decision making that goes on in the criminal justice system?’”

Dr. Snook, who completed his BA in sociology at Memorial and returned to the province to join the Department of Psychology in 2004, is particularly interested in the role of heuristics in legal decisions. Heuristics, he explained, are shortcuts in thinking, used to make decisions when time, resources, knowledge or mental capacity are limited.

“The view has long been that if you use simple heuristics, your thinking is faulty. Traditionally, the negative aspects have been overemphasized.” Dr. Snook, however, is intrigued by research coming from Germany and the U.S. that suggests heuristics can be beneficial. “We expect those working in the legal system to always be fully rational, to weigh all the evidence before making a decision. But realistically, we know there are time constraints, mental constraints and resource constraints that impact on them.”

The question that must be answered, then, is whether using mental shortcuts can lead to sound outcomes. Ultimately, he expects the research done in the Bounded Rationality and Law Lab to result in policies and practices that can strengthen various sectors of the criminal justice system.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) has already begun collaborating on projects; Dr. Snook is working with RNC Sergeant John House on a project to examine how managers of major investigations approach decisions.

In the examination of decision-making, Dr. Snook is joined by a diverse group of colleagues, including his graduate students, professors from Memorial and other Canadian universities, and researchers from the University of Liverpool, where Dr. Snook completed his PhD.

What the team has been missing, however, is a modern, well-equipped space that would foster innovation and collaboration with local, national and international organizations. That’s about to change, thanks to the grant of almost $153,000 from CFI’s Leaders Opportunity Fund for research infrastructure. (Dr. Snook also applied for funding from the province’s Industrial Research and Innovation Fund, and from Memorial University.) The money will turn the existing social psych space – a decades-old rabbit warren of small, separate offices and meeting rooms that have seen better days –into the Bounded Rationality and Law Lab (BRLL).

The BRLL will contain two seminar/meeting rooms, each with the latest in multifunctional digital whiteboard technology for teaching, training and communicating research findings. There will also be fully-outfitted offices for graduate students, and an open area with workstations and equipment where master’s and honours students studying social psychology can work and interact.

In addition to his work on decision-making, Dr. Snook also engages in research in general forensic psychology on criminal and legal behaviours, and studies what he calls the pseudosience that is sometimes employed by the justice system. This includes hypnosis, polygraphs and profilers.

“These are often used, but there is little scientific evidence that they work,” says Dr. Snook, who recently completed a study on criminal profilers.

Profilers have attained prominence in recent years, thanks to the endorsement of law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and, of course, popular television programs. However, Dr. Snook and his co-investigators found that in fact, professional profilers are really no better at predicting who might be responsible for a crime than the average person.

As with Dr. Snook’s other work, this research could have significant implications for improving our legal systems.