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Occupational norms and norm activation: Effects on police investigators’ processing of evidence

Conference paper
Authors Karl Ask
Pär-Anders Granhag
Anna Rebelius
Published in Paper presented at the 4th meeting of the Nordic Network for research on Psychology and Law, Reykjavik, Iceland.
Publication year 2007
Published at Department of Psychology
Language en
Keywords Criminal investigation, Effectiveness, Norms, Police, Evidence, Processing
Subject categories Psychology


Introduction: The most prevalent social norms within the police organization put a premium on decisiveness and effectiveness, which may promote a simplified and heuristic mode of thinking. However, fair and objective investigative work requires carefulness and systematic analysis. The occupational culture of the police may thus counteract the quality of criminal investigations. Aim: Norm activation theory predicts that the temporary salience of a social norm determines the extent to which the norm will affect human behavior. The objective of this study was to test whether the activation of norms pertaining to the occupational role of criminal investigators influences the process by which crime-related information is evaluated. Method: An experiment was conducted with 68 experienced criminal investigators as participants. Social norms were activated by letting investigators read and compare themselves with statements said to represent their colleagues’ conception of a “good investigator”. The statements expressed norms related to either decisiveness (e.g., “a good investigator is decisive”) or carefulness (e.g., “a good investigator is patient and systematic”). Ostensibly as part of a second unrelated study, investigators then read a summary of an assault case and rated it on several dimensions, including the likely guilt of a suspect. Results: As predicted, investigators who had been reminded of effectiveness (vs. carefulness) norms took less account of a witness statement that was diagnostic with regard to the guilt of the suspect, indicating a less systematic processing strategy. The effect occurred even though participants were unaware of the influence and reported not to deliberately try to conform to the norms. Conclusions: These findings suggest that undesirable influence from investigators’ social environment is subtle and hard to detect, but that the influence can be counteracted through active promotion of alternative norms.

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