Emotional rape victims seen as more believable

13 Sep 2019

Distressed rape complainants are perceived to be more credible than those who control their emotions, a University of Queensland study has found.

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

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

“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.”

Ms Nitschke’s research was conducted in collaboration with Associate Professors Blake McKimmie and Eric Vanman.

The team analysed 20 studies involving 3,128 participants who were criminal justice professionals, community members and mock jurors.

“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,” Ms Nitschke said.

“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.”

Ms Nitschke said 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.

“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” she said.

“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.”

The systematic review was published in Psychological Bulletin. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bul0000206).

Media: Faye Nitschke, f.nitschke@uq.edu.au; Dani Nash, UQ Communications, dani.nash@uq.edu.au, +61 7 3346 3035.

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