Post #221

900 words; 4 minutes to read

Summary:  Discusses several myths about the about the relationship between scientific evidence and human decision-making, and suggests alternative insights for effective research communication and impact.  


Criminal justice is a field with an especially wide gap between what the research evidence tells us and the policies we enact.  We know that harsher punishment does not improve public safety, that prisons are largely a waste of lives and money, that more laws don’t make us safer, yet ‘tough on crime’ policies continue to be advocated and widely supported.  Why are people so reluctant to believe the evidence?

An interesting perspective on this issue comes from a recent article in an entirely different field – environment and conservation.  The author, Anne Toomey, is a professor of environmental studies in the US.  Her goal in this paper is to explain to scientists more about how their research does – or does not – influence public attitudes and policy.  This field, sometimes known as ‘knowledge mobilization’ or ‘research utilization’ has become an important concern in many fields in the last 20 years or so, though the issue has, unfortunately, received very little attention in law or criminology.

Research and practice

Toomey starts with an important recognition – knowing more about a topic does not necessarily lead to action on it.  Yet the focus of most researchers is to share facts.  ‘…common techniques utilized by conservation scientists are: sharing research results on social media, speaking to reporters about conservation issues in the news, making evidence syntheses available to practitioners, and speaking directly to policymakers about the relevance of their work… While such strategies are well-intended and can require major investments of time and labor, they are often ineffective at generating desired changes in policies or practices.’

Her conclusion is consistent with a large body of evidence showing how often research findings do not get translated into practice.

This is so for several reasons.  ‘Humans struggle to make sense of statistics and probability, and are more likely to infer generalizations from individual stories or cases as compared to an evidence-based study that predicts the statistical likelihood of a given event’  Nor is this true only of laypeople. ‘…. research …has consistently found that environmental managers are far more likely to draw on common heuristics, such as intuition or opinion, rather than scientific evidence, when making important decisions.’

Moreover, ‘…most research in the field of science communication does not support the claim that increasing knowledge will lead to significantly greater appreciation for and support of science. Science education scholars have found that increasing knowledge of scientific concepts has little impact on whether a person will take actions based on such knowledge or engage in science-related issues, and cognitive ability and education level are not significantly related to one’s likelihood of acting in accordance with scientific consensus. Rather, much research has found that other factors, such as worldview, religion, and political beliefs, have stronger associations in terms of beliefs about science related to controversial issues.’

What should we do?

Fortunately, as we learn that evidence alone does not change minds or shape actions, we are learning more about what does.  Toomey writes, ‘Conservation scientists seeking to translate their research into action would be well advised to familiarize themselves with approaches that target social and cultural contexts rather than individual attitude and behavior change.’  The same would be true in criminal justice, a field that is dominated by highly emotional stories.

‘…Knowledge on a subject has limited influence unless it is shared in one’s social network and increasing amounts of information or marketing can increase resistance towards products or ideas that are not yet perceived to be socially acceptable.’  Once people have adopted a point of view, they are generally reluctant to change it unless there are powerful reasons to do so, and that most often means social dynamics.  New ideas are often accepted because our friends, colleagues, and family members believe them. ’

Discussion and stories

Group discussions have been found to help people improve argumentation skills, become less polarized when confronted with arguments that challenge their own, and reduce confirmation bias.’  ‘In other words, more than policy reports or evidence syntheses, people need frequent conversations, debate, and diversity of thought and experience for optimal decision-making.’

Stories are another strategy to change minds.  ‘Because stories tend to be more enjoyable to listen to as compared to undiluted facts, [and because we remember them more easily than we do facts] it is thought that they can reduce the incidence of negative thoughts and feelings that are often generated with controversial information’.

Individuals matter less than groups and organizations

Insights from behavioral science suggest that rather than attempting to change individual attitudes to change behavior, it may be more effective to change social environments to make it easier for individuals to opt into socially-desirable behaviors…. Changing physical and social environments to support desired actions can lead to behavioral changes… rather than changing minds to change behaviors, this body of scholarship suggests that the mere process of participating in new actions can shift one’s perceptions about issues.’

Also change often ‘starts and spreads in the peripheries of societies, where new ideas take hold among smaller social networks by means of strong social ties, which then connect to other social networks, and then eventually’ are widely adopted.

There are possibilities

Facts will not always change minds, but there is promise that other things will, including creating spaces for group dialogue and debate, targeting emotions and embodied knowledge, embracing multiple perspectives, altering environments to create new behaviors, and being strategic about whom we seek to target with our message.  These are important points for advocates of changes in criminal justice policy to consider.

About this blog: The John Howard Canada blog is intended to support greater public understanding of criminal justice issues.  Blog content does not necessarily represent the views of John Howard Canada.  All blog material may be reproduced freely for any non-profit purpose as long as the source is acknowledged.  We welcome comments (moderated).



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