Emotional rape victims are seen as more believable

  Last updated September 16, 2019 at 1:55 pm


When rape victims are emotional, they are often seen as more credible compared to those who withhold their emotions.

mental illness_mental health_rape victims

Rape victims who are more emotional, are often seen are more credible. Credit: Carlo107

Why This Matters: In distressing situations, a person’s emotional response isn’t a reliable way to assess whether they’re being honest.

Distressed rape complainants are perceived to be more credible by criminal justice professionals than those who control their emotions.

That’s the finding from a University of Queensland study which analysed 20 studies involving 3,128 participants who were criminal justice professionals, community members and mock jurors.

Faye Nitschke from UQ School of Psychology says the findings were alarming, given that emotion is not related to honesty or accuracy.

“We found that rape complainants with distressed emotional demeanour were perceived as more credible than their emotionally-controlled counterparts and complainants who displayed other emotions,” Nitschke says.

“Many rape complainants don’t become distressed when giving evidence, so the effect of emotion in credibility decisions may be one explanation for the disproportionately high number of rape cases which do not proceed to trial in the criminal justice system.

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Only nine per cent of allegations proceed to trial

Nitschke explains that whether rape allegations proceed to trial is based on whether the rape victims are perceived as credible.

“On average, only nine per cent of rape allegations made to police in Australia, the United States and Europe proceed to trial,” Nitschke says.

“In up to 88 per cent of rape cases, the defendant and complainant know each other – so-called acquaintance or date rape – and the complainant’s testimony about consent is critical.

“If the complainant is not perceived to be credible, these cases do not progress through the criminal justice system.”

Professionals are influenced by emotions

Nitschke says a particularly concerning finding was that of criminal justice professionals, including judges, police officers and trainees being influenced by the emotion of complainants when judging credibility.

Deeper: Should we use AI in law courts?

“As emotional demeanour is not a reliable indicator of honesty, and victims not being seen as credible is a key reason why cases don’t progress through the criminal justice system, addressing misperceptions about a complainant’s level of emotionality should be a priority.”

“To improve the fairness and accuracy of how allegations of sexual assault are evaluated, we need effective methods for reducing reliance on a complainant’s emotional demeanour,” she says,

Nitschke’s research was conducted in collaboration with Blake McKimmie and Eric Vanman, both from UQ.

The full review is published in Psychological Bulletin.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au

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