Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Psychology of Race and Ethnicity

Human Diversity, Geoff W Sutton, 2018

“So, what’s the difference between race and ethnicity?” My friend had a puzzled look as she genuinely wanted an answer. She has been to visit a doctor. The lengthy forms asked for her race and ethnicity in addition to many other bits of personal information. Her visit was this year, 2018, so I’m not talking about an old problem.

   I took a while to respond because psychologists have long debated the issue of race and ethnicity. But I am also aware that census forms ask about race and ethnicity. And published articles report information about participants with terms like Caucasian, African American, Black, and White. People refer to other groups as Latino/a, Hispanic, or Asian and Pacific Islander.

   I’m also puzzled because the term “racist” has been in the news a lot lately. People who make disparaging comments about other people based on where they live or come from are called racists rather than ethnists (not recognized in my spellchecker).

   We see pictures of President Obama with his mother—a “white” American— but he is considered America’s first Black President. We know his father was an African—a Kenyan. Some people identify with their skin color and some with their homeland or that of their ancestors. Sometimes context makes a difference—like a census form, a physician’s office, or a sociological study.

   When working in New Mexico, I was referred to as an Anglo. As an Englishman I did not mind the term but found it strange to call French and German people Anglos because the first sense of the term "Anglo-American" refers to Americans of English descent or can be about nation relationships. It appears the classification is based on language use rather than country of origin.

   I was required to participate in an educational program about Native American cultures. One speaker made a point about Native American spirituality. In my experience, I found a diversity of religious and spiritual beliefs amongst the many Native American tribal cultures. And I learned that many identified religiously as Catholic, Baptist, and Pentecostal. I also met Spanish speakers with different national identities—people from Spain, Puerto Rico, Cuba, El Salvador, and Mexico. Others traced their heritage to the Spanish Colonial period. Some were Americans and some were not.

   Some terms represent sources of pride while others point to prejudice as noted by psychological scientist, Hazel Markus of Stanford University (2008). Markus writes about the race-ethnicity confusion and aims to help us clear things up.

   Markus studies identity. Early in her article she cites studies documenting that racial identity can predict “attitudes, beliefs, motivation, and performance (p. 652).” She also observes “that ethnicity (often called culture) shapes individual experience… (p. 653).”

   When teaching research methods, we teach about the importance of culture. We psychologists, and our colleagues in related fields, are keen to respect diversity. We have not always been so aware of our biases and prejudices as Guthrie (1976) observed—Even the Rat Was White. This fact always drew a laugh from my students.

   As Markus points out, some people use the terms race and ethnicity interchangeably. This was the difficulty I had in answering my friend’s question. In fact, some researchers, who do not mind extra coding work, ask participants to provide their own identity when completing surveys.

Markus makes another important point. We have a history of junk science known as eugenics—the belief that some races are better than others.


Markus proposes two definitions, which are worth considering even if we disagree with her (p. 654).

Race is a dynamic set of historically derived and institutionalized
ideas and practices that (1) sorts people
into ethnic groups according to perceived physical and
behavioral human characteristics; (2) associates differential
value, power, and privilege with these characteristics
and establishes a social status ranking among the
different groups; and (3) emerges (a) when groups are
perceived to pose a threat (political, economic, or cultural)
to each other’s world view or way of life; and/or
(b) to justify the denigration and exploitation (past, current,
or future) of, and prejudice toward, other groups.

Ethnicity is a dynamic set of historically derived and
institutionalized ideas and practices that (1) allows people
to identify or to be identified with groupings of
people on the basis of presumed (and usually claimed)
commonalities including language, history, nation or
region of origin, customs, ways of being, religion,
names, physical appearance, and/or genealogy or ancestry;
(2) can be a source of meaning, action, and identity;
and (3) confers a sense of belonging, pride, and

    We are reminded in both definitions that people in society are the ones defining race and ethnicity. In a sense, each of us deals with what others say when attempting to define our individual identity. We are dealing with both biological characteristics and perceived psychosocial factors linked to those biological characteristics. But we are simultaneously dealing with perceived psychosocial factors linked to perceptions of what other people, supposedly like us, think, feel, and act.

     Have you ever watched a person stop in front of a mirror? Have you ever heard someone comment on a discovery that someone else wore the same special clothes to an event? Have you heard people account for others’ problems by referring to their bad choices rather than circumstances? Many people hold strong beliefs about individual identities and want to stand out from the other 7 billion on earth. We do well to understand people by listening to their individual stories. But the fact is, we share a lot in common with other humans who share common experiences. Up to a limit, we strive for individuality but we also take on identities linked to a cultural group.

     Let’s return to biology. We see physical differences. Our problem comes when we link characteristics like intelligence, motivation, and athleticism to people based upon one or more physical characteristics that some people have in common like skin color, the shape of eyes and noses, and so forth.


Markus proposes five assumptions that can interfere with our views of other people based on race and/or ethnicity. The bold emphases are mine.

1. “Race and ethnicity are not …inherent or essential properties that people or groups have. (p. 661).” Both terms are social constructions. Race descriptions come mostly from those not a part of a particular group. Ethnic descriptions mostly come from people within a group.

2. “Ethnic differences refer to differences in frameworks of meaning, value, and ways of living (practices) that derive through association with a particular ethnic group and are noted, claimed, or appreciated by those associated with the group (p. 661).”

3. “Racial differences, by contrast, refer to differences in societal worth that people outside the group impose and that people associated with the group do not claim and, in fact, often resist. (p. 662)” Labeling groups can merge ideas of race and ethnicity. Governments who label large groups may do so for various reasons that can be tied to benefits and privileges. The U.S. has a Bureau of Indian Affairs. Sometimes “Indians” or Native Americans are treated as one group of people having similar characteristics. Sometimes when a diverse group of people are treated in a certain way by those in a power position, the smaller group responds to the treatment, which ends up further defining the identity of the previously diverse group and the individuals within that group.

4. “If race or ethnicity is salient in a social context (nation, neighborhood, classroom, family), it will influence psychological experience—thoughts, feelings, and actions— even if people are not aware of or do not desire or claim this influence (p. 662)”

     Some friends who currently identify as a sexual minority (appropriately called “coming out”) did not do so when they were in a culture that held negative views toward their identity. They reasonably believed that the culture in which they lived would make them stand out. Nevertheless, even though an important aspect of their identity was not known, the negative remarks had an influence on them.

      Salience is an important concept in social psychology. Observable characteristics that stand out as making a person look different elicit common responses from those not having the characteristic. For example, people who walk with a cane, use a wheelchair, speak with a particular accent, or appear to have a vastly different body size stand out in some contexts. Some salient features result in positive responses and others are decidedly negative.

      It can be instructive to think of the difference it makes when a person has a strong identity but the identity is not salient so they avoid overt mistreatment but cannot escape the internal experience. For example, Jewish women who were fluent in German and possessed blond hair and blue eyes in Nazi occupied Europe were sometimes able to escape death unless they were betrayed. A gay man could escape mistreatment when married to a woman. You can probably think of other examples.

5. Race and ethnicity influences people in direct and indirect ways, which can vary with the cultural contexts they encounter. Each day people enter several cultural contexts or social spaces such as work, school, community club, church, and family. They enter other contexts on different days of a week or periods of life. Some contexts influence people by the direct communication of beliefs and practices but in other contexts, the influence may be subtler. People in the contexts may not always be aware of how they are influencing other persons. (For more on behavior in social spaces see the SCOPES model).


So, what should my friend write on her doctor’s form? I’m tempted to say “it’s none of your business” but why aggravate a clerk who must enter data into a database? Perhaps she could write “other” since there were no checkboxes to use. She could also just use a common label in her culture that she does not find offensive.

If you are creating a survey, think about what you need to know when asking questions about race, ethnicity, gender and so forth. Phrase your items based on the terms your audience would use and include options for mixed and other categories.

Meanwhile, I hope all of us can avoid making false assumptions that demean, degrade, and hurt people who have been designated as belonging to an unfavorable group. And we can take a positive stance by pointing out the false assumptions of others when they use degrading language.


Intelligence is one factor that has been considered a result of both biology and life experience. Unfortunately, intelligence has been associated with race. Counselors use intelligence tests but often deal with sensitive issues during interpretation of low scores. See Applied Statistics: Concepts for Counselors.

I encourage researchers who create surveys to think carefully about the words they use to collect data about race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and so forth. See Creating Surveys.

There are lots of photos of Barack Obama with his mother.

An interesting story of mistaking a Jewish girl for an "ideal Aryan" is the case of Hessy Taft.

CREATING SURVEYS is available on AMAZON as an eBook and Paperback.


Guthrie, R. V. (1976). Even the rat was white: A historical view of psychology. New York: Harper & Row.

Markus, H. R. (2008). Pride, prejudice, and ambivalence: Toward a unified theory of race and ethnicity. American Psychologist63(8), 651-670. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.63.8.651

Sutton, G. (2017). Creating surveys: Evaluating programs & reading research. Springfield, MO: Sunflower.

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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Chain Migration in America

I'm part of a small chain migration to the United States. Aliens like us have to have an American sponsor. My mother's sister married an American soldier. He sponsored us, which means he took responsibility for us-- we could come to the U.S. but we should not become a burden on the United States. It was tough at first but things soon got better. I did not know about white privilege at the time, but I do now. And I learned a lot about white - black differences during the Civil Rights movement.

It is fitting to think about immigration and racial issues on this weekend when we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His tireless efforts helped change attitudes, laws, and lives for the better. We see the progress but understand that his dream is unfulfilled.


One cold March school break near Easter, bundeled in warm coats, we loaded into dad's used two tone blue '53 Chevy and headed from New Jersey to Florida for the first time. That's when we saw the signs that read "White's Only." And we saw only black people hard at work in the fields along the highway--it was like seeing photos in a history book from centuries ago--but it wasn't that long ago. I may not have remembered this part of the trip so much if it hadn't struck my parents in such a profound manner.

You know the history. By the late 1960s, African Americans had made great gains. Last year, my wife and I visited the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. There we were reminded about the cruelty of a different form of "chain migration." And I was again reminded of the black and white images burned into my memory from childhood. Why did it take so long to remove the social shackles after the metal ones were unlocked?


There are challenges of racism before us this week. For several years now, African Americans have been targets of police brutality and shootings, which reminds us of the problem of racism in the nation. And the current president stands accused of racism when he denounced people from certain countries--"holes" that don't house desirable people (npr, 2018).

There remains an invisible enchainment referred to by sociologists as mass incarceration. I read an essay by Peter Althouse (2016) who challenges Christians with data and ethical arguments to consider the lack of justice evident in the high rates of incarceration of Black Americans compared to Whites. According to Hager (WP, 2017) one in 60 white children have a parent behind bars but the rate for black children is one in 10. It's hard to believe that justice is blind.

Another challenge is the future of the group called "dreamers" who don't know their future status. It must seem more like a nightmare. Dreamers came to the US as children. Through no fault of their own, they have no documentation of legal entry into the U.S. Will they be allowed to become citizens? Will they be sent back to a birth country they hardly know?

President Obama worked on behalf of the dreamers. A program known as DACA (Defered Action for Childhood Arrivals) was established to grant certain rights to those who have not engaged in criminal conduct and do not pose a threat to the U.S. Dreamers are part of a chain, but it is an illegal chain. They come to the U.S. as children. They may have younger siblings who are born in the U.S. They may have married an American citizen and have American children. In the case of undocumented children, the chain of migration binds them as a family. But unless the laws change, the family bonds may be broken.

And now, to be more clear about the chain migration debate, U. S. politicians are arguing about immigration policy. Currently, chain migration is legal-- it is a term referring to the right of green card holders to serve as sponsors for family members who wish to become permanent residents of the U.S. President Trump asserts that it is too easy to bring people in who have limited skills and may pose a threat to national security. He wants to restrict the number of immigrants and establish merit-based criteria for new immigrants (White House, 15 December 2017).

It appears some sort of deal will be worked out to change immigration laws and provide some rights for "dreamers." Unfortunately, the whole discussion about immigrations occurs in an ugly context of racism, which is where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fits in the story. This is a fitting weekend to remember this world class Civil Rights leader and commit anew to his dream of freedom for all people. It's hard to fight when your hands are joined.

When we allow freedom to ring-when we let it ringfrom every city and every hamlet, from every state andevery city, we will be able to speed up that day when allof God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual,"Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, "We arefree at last." 

--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963

Monday, December 18, 2017

Centers for Select Disease Control and Prevention








The SEVEN banned words news story soon went viral as vulnerable people and those who care for their health and services were alarmed by the Washington Post Story. What might be the reason to identify people or their health needs by reference to transgender, diversity, or vulnerable?

Of course, HHS and CDC are entitled to their opinions about mischaracterization of the news story. As you read the response by Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald on twitter @CDCDirector you find a statement about "no banned words." However, she refers to the mischaracterization as related to budget formulation and discussion.

The murky clarifications of Dr. Fizgerald just made things worse. Why? Because she referred to budgetary language.

Government budgets make it clear what and who will and will not receive tax-payers' money.

What people say in their labs and scientific reports is important. But money controls what they get paid to investigate. Hence the title of this post "Centers for Select Disease Control and Prevention." If governments decide on a selection process that targets the health and well-being of a segment of the population then there is reason for all citizens to be concerned because you, your condition, or people you love, might be a target in the future.

The final solution to this problem is to replace elected government officials with compassionate leaders who care about all human beings.

Even if the HHS and CDC do not intend to harm anyone, without funds for certain conditions, they are limited by what they can do. If they misappropriate budgeted funds, then their off-budget programs for select people and conditions will be at risk or canceled and those responsible for diverting may lose their positions.

Words matter. Words in budgets are powerful weapons to control a population. So far it seems, the press was right to spread the word about the banned words.

Vulnerable persons are right to be alarmed. But every citizen connected to a vulnerable person should be alarmed until we have reliable evidence on which to base our efforts to keep calm and carry on.

And if the storm passes, we have a lesson in the power of words--especially when words are backed by money that guides the selection of some people and not others for some tax-funded privilege.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Helping Naked Jesus

Convoy of Hope helps after Greensburg KS tornado 2007

King: Come here, you beloved, you people whom My Father has blessed. Claim your inheritance, the Kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of creation. You shall be richly rewarded, for when I was hungry, you fed Me. And when I was thirsty, you gave Me something to drink. I was alone as a stranger, and you welcomed Me into your homes and into your lives. I was naked, and you gave Me clothes to wear; I was sick, and you tended to My needs; I was in prison, and you comforted Me.

Even then the righteous will not have achieved perfect understanding and will not recall these things.

Righteous: Master, when did we find You hungry and give You food? When did we find You thirsty and slake Your thirst? When did we find You a stranger and welcome You in, or find You naked and clothe You? When did we find You sick and nurse You to health? When did we visit You when You were in prison?

King: I tell you this: whenever you saw a brother or sister hungry or cold, whatever you did to the least of these, so you did to Me.

     -- (Matthew 25: 34b-40; The Voice)


     "We need some winter clothes for refugee families."

     "Does anyone have pots, pans, cutlery?"

Requests like these appear on a Facebook group for refugee families. It's that time of year when email and mailboxes include requests for funds. Checkboxes suggest how much we should consider. Photos of hungry children appear on search pages.

[Funny, I just noticed a picture of a smiling black girl with a caption asking me to give.]

Emotional appeals are everywhere. Why? Because they work.

Christians are tuned in to giving at Christmas time. We know about three wise men even if we don't know about frankinsence and myrrh. At least we know about gold. And we know the wise men gave Jesus gifts. (I wonder what his parents did with the treasure.)

There are social norms enhanced by Dicken's famous carol. Sensitive souls shed a tear. It's a good time to ask for money. No one wants to be a scrooge.

The thing I like most about the Matthew text is the integrated universal message. Faith and works are integrated- you shouldn't see faith without works.

And people who meet other's needs are serving God -- even when they don't know it.

I think it worth considering that people who don't meet the needs of the poor do not fare well.

The poor still need the same basic stuff-- a place to sleep, food, drink, clothes, someone to welcome them, and health care.

Wise people give gifts to help those in need. Wise people run businesses and cast votes with the needy in mind.

My website Geoffrey W. Sutton


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

6 Ways to Make an Effective Apology


What Works?

Individuals and business leaders often find themselves apologizing or dealing with requests for an apology. Most are seeking forgiveness and many wish to make things right. But correcting mistakes is not always easy.

Having an affair destroys most romantic relationships. Some partners do forgive and reconcile. Many do not. In an age of ubiquitous cameras, high speed internet communication, and hackers, odds increase that cheaters will be revealed to a wide audience. Of course, it’s not just the spouse or partner who suffers—children, relatives, and close friends hurt as well.

Usually the small stuff can be handled with an “I’m sorry” as long as it appears genuine. When the offense causes some difficulty, reputable businesses make amends. For example, after incorrect ticketing in China, I was moved to business class–too bad it was only an hour flight! Larger offenses cause more distress and law suits are costly.

Church leaders know a lot about public apologies too. Canadian leaders apologized for the way early Canadians ill-treated First Nations People in residential schools. Many of the schools were religious. Catholic leaders apologized for clergy sexual abuse of children and cover-ups. From time to time religious leaders admit to sexual infidelity.


FIRST with TRUTH is an easy way to remember six effective components of an apology. The letters in the word "TRUTH" refer to five ideas linked to research. Add the concept of being "FIRST" and you have my six suggestions.

  Apologies usually work as a package. People receiving an apology often need several items to be present to forgive the offense. Keep in mind that apologies do not always work. And the setting needs to be safe for all involved. Finally, in serious matters, consult an attorney.

1. Be FIRST in telling the truth. Apologies are more effective when people and businesses do not wait until they are caught. Reputable businesses recall their faulty products when they discover something is wrong. Hiding the truth can look like a "cover-up," which victims despise. Covering up the truth has serious negative consequences. Consider the plight of churches that covered up clergy abuse.

People who want a trusting relationship apologize for events likely to have an impact on their partner or spouse. If you damaged the car or broke something meaningful it’s usually good to confess before your partner finds out.

But, some acts like an affair evoke strong emotions such that the victim needs to be prepared to receive an apology. If in doubt, ask a third party like a counselor or mediator to help. So apologizing before being caught is a general rule but exceptions exist when a confession can lead to harm.

2. Tell the TRUTH. A complete and truthful apology is important. Clearly state, “I apologize.” And clearly state what you apologize for. Provide sufficient details so it’s clear that you recognize the problem you or your business caused. If you’re not good at expressing yourself, ask for help.

3. Take RESPONSIBILITY. “I was wrong.” Admitting fault is often a key to an effective apology. Leave off excuses and explanations that can sound like excuses. Giving reasons for what you did can sound like it’s not your fault, which discounts the effectiveness of your apology.

4. UNDO the harm. Undoing the harm can be impossible in some cases but a sincere and generous offer can go a long way toward making amends. When my wife and I had problems with work on our house, the business apologized, refunded our final payment, and hired a professional to make it right.

In personal matters, it may take a third party to mediate a settlement. Counselors, clergy, and professional mediators can sometimes help.

5. Demonstrate REMORSE. Most people need to see evidence of remorse-sometimes it means seeing an emotional response consistent with remorse. This is a tough one. Some offenders cry easily and others have difficulty showing emotion even when they feel remorseful. In contrast, some victims have been burned so badly that they do not trust displays of emotion as genuine, whilst others are quick to accept an apology and forgive with any reasonable sign of remorse. When you can see the offense from the perspective of the victim, you are likely on your way toward an empathy. Empathy is a key to feeling remorseful.

6. HUMBLY explain the HISTORY of the events leading up to the offense in response to questions. Many people want answers. They want to know why you or your business did such a thing. People want satisfactory answers but what satisfies one person may not satisfy another. And, as noted above, keep in mind explanations can sound like excuses.

Perhaps humility is a key here. All honest people can do is share their version of events leading up to the offense. In some cases you may need to verify relevant facts or events. Even when things cannot be undone as in the case of a death as a result of an accident, families still want to know the details of what happened.



Kirchhoff, J., Wagner, U., & Strack, M. (2012). Apologies: Words of magic? The role of verbal components, anger reduction, and offence severity. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18, 109-130.  doi 10.1037/a0028092

Thomas, E. K. & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious Leadership Failure: Forgiveness, Apology, and Restitution. Journal of Spiritualityin Mental Health, 10, 308-327.

Thomas, E. K., White, K., & Sutton, G.W. (2008). Religious leadership failure: Apology, responsibility-taking, gender, forgiveness, and restoration. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 27, 16-29.

Wilkinson, M. (2010). Public acts of forgiveness: What happens when Canadian churches and governments seek forgiveness for social sins of the past?  In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds). Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. (pp. 177–198). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications. http://wipfandstock.com/pickwick_publications



Friday, November 17, 2017

Sexual Harassment Apologies Forgiveness and Restoration

Tweeden's report of her long felt anger in the face of a revealing photo of sexual harassment by Al Franken makes big news for several reasons.

We know sexual harassment knows no political boundaries. It's not just a problem for conservatives who have been under fire. But now there is evidence of a Democrat's sexual assault-- plus a photo and an apology.

Leeann Tweeden says she accepted Franken's apology, which adds to the complexity of how to handle sexual harassment in society.

Sexual harassment is wrong. No one of a sound mind denies the obvious. Different groups concerned about people who are accused of sexual harassment handle reports differently. This difference raises the issue of what consequences should apply to Franken and others when there is evidence of harassment. Voters will judge when they have an opportunity regardless of what any official administrative group (ethics panels etc.) decides. So, politicians have consequences of a different sort than do other predators or those accused of harassment.

Consumers decide how to respond when the rich and famous are guilty of harassment. Movies are cancelled. Products are trashed or personcotted (neologism). But this can happen even without evidence. Accusations of sexual harassment carry emotional weight.

Religious people decide what to do when clergy and religious leaders are guilty. As is the case with politicians and celebrities, some people offer support, some denounce the predators, others sue for damages. Some leave faith altogether.

All of us must decide to take action to create a safer society.

What's the role of an apology?

Ms. Tweeden was the one offended. Sincere apologies help offended people forgive and let go of the past. In some cases, apologies provide the basis for reconciliation. These decisions are for Ms. Tweeden--not the rest of us.

The rest of us get to decide what to do when we learn of sexual harassment allegations.

Some thoughts 

Sexual harassment and assault produce psychological harm that lasts for years.

Anger is one common strong feeling that persists. Anger can be inflamed when we are reminded of times when we were offended.

The images of harassment and assault remain in the mind even when there is no photo evidence.

Humiliation is a common experience that keeps people from speaking out.

Fear of reprisal can keep victims from speaking out. The experience of fear is real even if the risk of reprisal is low.

Deciding if an incident is worth the personal cost of disclosue can keep victims from speaking out.

Self-blame and guilt can keep victims from speaking out.

The examples of others bold enough to speak out can encourage others to come forward.

Constant news stories can stimulate old memories, which will affect people in different ways.

Sincere, apologies help victims forgive and become survivors.

Apologies do not need to be accepted by victims or those who must judge the accused.

Forgiveness is for victims to gain release from the pain of the past--to let go of the anger and move forward.

Those of us who have not been offended by someone in a news story have no particular reason to accept their apology or consider forgiveness or reconciliation. But we may be in a position to influence consequences and restoration--for example by voting or supporting / not supporting sources of income.

Forgiveness does not require reconciliation with the abuser. Reconciliation requires trust.

Apologies do not mean we should restore a person to their former status whether politican, actor, member of the clergy, or spouse.

To move from victim to survivor usually requires letting go of the past. But self-forgiveness may be required when "victims" feel partly responsible for the abusive event. This is especially true for those manipulated by predators.

Restoration of abusers to their former social position requires evidence suggesting a repeat offense is unlikely. Restoration is something decided by voters, employers, organizational boards, and spouses.

Human memories are dynamic and not like photographs or videos. This applies to observers, abusers, victims, and survivors.

Related posts

Sexual Assault Allegation Research

Psychology of Hurricane Harvey (Weinstein) and the "me too" flood

Psychology of Sexual Harassment

10 Beliefs about Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Forgiveness Quotes

Forgive? Yes. Reconcile? Maybe.

What I write

Geoffrey W. Sutton

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sexual Assault Allegation Research

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife /Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, Called Guercino, 1649
National Gallery of Art

In an experimental study, people reading accounts of sexual assault performed worse than chance (45.3%) when judging whether a report was true or false. The more confident the judgment, the lower the rate of accuracy (Peace et al., 2012).

Charges of sexual assault are clearly a serious matter. Many people are sexually assaulted each year. Most of the victims are women. Yet many innocent people have been imprisoned on false charges and lost years of their lives, which cannot be recovered.

The story of Picking Cotton is a powerful reminder of a bright woman who appeared quite credible but was sadly mistaken. Jennifer Thompson was convinced it was Ronald Cotton who raped her. But it turned out she was wrong. Her story was presented in a 60-minutes special in 2011.
The point is, when an accused person claims innocence, the person may be telling the truth. In cases of sexual assault, observers may be limited to the claims of two people and no physical evidence.

Detecting Deception

The research reviewed by Peace and her colleagues indicates a history of difficulty in detecting deception with accuracy levels running close to chance levels but confidence levels running at inflated levels.

There is an emotional belief bias. That is, emotional stories add a believability factor. When a report contains emotional content, and is presented with intense emotion, the report leads people to believe the report as true. Reports of rape and other forms of sexual assault are the kind of reports that lead to credibility.

Some have wondered about the role of personality in judging the accuracy of reports. Unfortunately, research does not provide a consistent pattern.

RAND Corporation Report

In a massive report (319 pages), the Rand Corporation team compiled A Compendium of Sexual Assault Research. (Download pdf).

One problem is that although most agree that sexual assault is a widespread problem, estimates vary considerably from 15 to 51%. A study of men reported a 4% rate. On college campuses, the assault of women ranged from 21 to 42% in various samples.

Victims tend to know the perpetrators. The risk factors for predicting perpetrators were described as follows:

"Among perpetrators, hostile masculinity was most often found to be a significant predictor of sexual assault perpetration; men who adhered to aggressive sexual beliefs were also considered at high risk of perpetrating sexual assault, as were those with a history of being coercive or committing assault." (p. x)


Psychotherapists and counselors have a different task than does the forensic psychologist. Clinicians are concerned with the well-being of their clients. Clinicians must deal with the symptoms reported and the client's perceived experience. Helping victims become survivors is the joint effort of clinicians and clients.

Anyone wanting to be objective about the evaluation of sexual assault charges may be on the defensive when faced with an emotional report of rape, which may be believed by many. When stories are published, the accused is judged in the court of public opinion.

The forensic psychologist seeks to determine credibility along with the mental status of the person reporting the assault. Efforts to be objective by examiners can be frustrating to victims.

The reports of sexual assault are often true even when some details may be incorrect. An incorrect detail or an inconsistency does not necesarily mean a claim is false.

But some reports of sexual assault are false for various reasons including mistaken perceptions and false memories.

To learn more, consider the RAND report and the Peace study along with the references provided in those documents.


Respectful comments are welcome, including corrections. Others will be deleted.


Peace, K. A., Porter, S., & Almon, D. F. (2012). Sidetracked by emotion: Observers' ability to discriminate genuine and fabricated sexual assault allegations. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 17(2), 322-335. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8333.2011.02013.x

Related reading on sex and morality  A House Divided