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Societies host virtual event exploring the human mind and the law

What drives people to break the law? How does the mind of a criminal differ from that of a law-abiding citizen? And how reliable are the memories of witnesses who are so crucial to assessing an accused criminal’s guilt or innocence?

These were the types of questions explored in a recent virtual event staged by two societies at the University of Guelph-Humber, Alpha Phi Sigma and Psi Chi. With instructor Dr. Glenn Barenthin serving as guest speaker, the event – a cross-program collaboration between students mostly in Justice Studies or Psychology – drew more than 70 attendees, who engaged in thoughtful and enriching discussion over issues deeply relevant to both fields.

“I think the question, ‘why do people commit crimes?’ is an incredibly compelling topic,” said Rachelle Lacroix, Vice-President of Internal Affairs for UofGH’s Alpha Phi Sigma chapter. “Psychologists and criminologists have been working to find an answer to this question for hundreds of years and I think the lack of any concrete answers speaks to the topic’s complexity.

“Having the chance to attend an event that approaches this topic with insights from a former police officer and an individual who currently works in the correctional system was a very enticing opportunity.”

Going inside the criminal mind

Dr. Barenthin’s talk centred on the intersection of cognitive psychology and the law. With a background researching cognitive science and decision-making, Dr. Barenthin’s wide-ranging discussion covered how human bias develops, whether free will is an illusion, and whether those issues of agency affect our understanding of moral responsibility and punishment.

He also went in-depth on the ways in which memory is a reconstructive process, not a recording of an event. He discussed how investigators must be cognizant of this issue when interviewing victims, witnesses and suspects because it is possible to inadvertently “plant” memories into subjects’ minds. To illustrate his point, he showed a video of researchers planting memories into participants.

“Understanding why people believe what they believe and why they behave in certain ways is a fascinating topic and it is a topic important for both Psychology and Justice Students,” Dr. Barenthin said. “I believe understanding human cognition is a topic worthy of investigation for all disciplines.”

Certainly, his presentation resonated with students.

“I really enjoyed Glenn’s anecdotes,” said Omniya Ali, President of UofGH’s Psi Chi chapter. “Because he was formerly involved in the police force, he was able to draw in everyone’s attention all while keeping it educational and informative.”

“Listening to Dr. Barenthin is always a wonderful experience,” Lacroix added. “Hearing his perspective on the human mind and how it is influenced by the world around it was incredible and his background in policing only added to his presentation.

“One thing that I took away from this event was the idea that false memories are easily formed in the human mind and that these false memories can lead to the finding of guilt in a court of law,” she continued. “False memories, whether in the minds of witnesses or in the minds of the accused, can make witness testimony unreliable. Nevertheless, this form of evidence is still crucial and can lead to the conviction of the guilty party in many cases." 

Collaborating across programs

The idea for this event began with Psi Chi and initially was based around psychopathy, before the topic evolved to be more about forensic psychology. Student leaders in the society approached Alpha Phi Sigma and were met with enthusiasm about working together on the event.

Since Alpha Phi Sigma is an international honour society based around criminal justice and Psi Chi recognizes academic excellence in psychology, you could perhaps say that students were approaching the event with different perspectives.

That just made for a more engaging and rewarding session.

“Having students from both programs absolutely enriched the discussion,” Ali said. “We were able to cover a plethora of subject matter from brain structures, biological predispositions, and environmental factors to testimonials, the future of technology in the justice system, and wrongful convictions.”

Though the students might have different career goals, they also discovered commonalities.

“While both groups are unique and distinct, I think that Psychology students and Justice Studies students have the same yearning to understand how the human mind works,” Lacroix said.

“I think this created an environment where students were able to share their own ideas and beliefs while pursuing the same goal as their peers. I loved seeing the interaction in the chat where students were sharing resources and information that they have learned through their own experiences. It truly was a learning experience for everyone present and this learning was further advanced by students asking great questions about technology, eyewitness testimony, and even brain mapping.”

It’s the kind of collaboration that Dr. Barenthin would love to see happen more often.

“It is great that two programs got together, as universities tend to play a lot of lip service to multidisciplinary studies, however many still remain in their little silos,” he said. “I am glad the students are seeing the need to break down those barriers.”