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Negativity Bias and the Criminal Justice System
10 May 2021  | Simei Verster | Views: 81

Yes, I am a candidate attorney, but I REALLY like neuroscience. So, I hope you enjoy my attempt to reconcile these two fields.

Negativity bias means that we feel the sting of criticism more intensely than the joy of praise. Essentially, we are hard-wired to recognize and focus on the negative – this is a primal instinct that serves to protect us from threats, but in a modern evolved world where we do not need to worry about being chased by a lion (hopefully), this negativity bias sometimes tends to dull down our experience of life.

It is a general principle in our law that you are innocent until proven guilty. This is a great sentiment, and I call it that simply because as humans our brains are designed to believe the worst. So, to give you an example, in a study during 1998, a group of neuro scientists took a group of 100 people and showed them 33 positive images (kids laughing on a roller coaster) and 33 negative images (a gun pointed at a person). The MRI’s showed that while the people looked at negative images, there was significantly more brain activity than when they looked at positive images. Therefore, if someone is accused of having committed a murder, our brains will by default choose to focus on this, instead of the equal possibility that this person is innocent.

This is probably why the legislature in its infinite wisdom enshrined this right in the Constitution. The right to a fair trial includes the right to be presumed innocent, and therefore, if it is found that this is contravened, it is unconstitutional. Even though the science has only recently caught up, human error, biases and presumptions are no stranger to the criminal justice system. This constitutional right protects us from our own human nature and provides much needed positivity bias.

I hope you enjoyed my little rant about neuroscience.