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Why emotions matter: A test of stereotype and empathy accounts of the 'emotional victim effect'

Conference paper
Authors Karl Ask
Sara Landström
Published in 19th Conference of the European Association of Psychology and Law, 2-5 September, Sorrento, Italy
Publication year 2009
Published at Department of Psychology
Language en
Keywords Victim credibility, Witness credibility, Emotions, Stereotypes, Cognitive load
Subject categories Cognitive science, Applied Psychology

Abstract

It has been shown repeatedly that rape victims displaying controlled behavior when recounting the crime are judged as less credible than victims displaying negative emotions. Researchers have assumed that this is a result of stereotypes about crime victim reactions, but the actual mechanism has never been tested directly. In this paper, an alternative account is presented, proposing that the advantage of the emotional victim could lie in its ability to invoke stronger empathic-emotional reactions in the observer. The two accounts were pitted against each other in an experiment: Should the stereotype account be correct, then placing the observer under cognitive load would increase the effect of a victim’s emotional display. In contrast, should the empathy account be correct, then cognitive load would reduce the effect. One hundred eighty-nine police trainees watched a videotaped statement of an actress portraying a rape victim. The victim’s emotional display (emotional vs. neutral) and observers’ cognitive load while watching the statement (additional memory task vs. no memory task) were manipulated. Results showed that the emotional victim was believed more than the neutral victim, and that the effect was stronger under cognitive load. In addition, the effect was fully mediated by the match between the woman’s actual behavior and observers’ expectations. No evidence for a meditational role of observers’ own emotional reactions was found. In sum, the study provides empirical support for the traditional stereotype account, and has clear practical implications, showing that cognitive load increases the risk of attributional errors in judgments of victim credibility.

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