Psychological Forces at Play in Courtrooms


The way people make sense of the surrounding world is a generally vast issue related to cognitive psychology. Humans have the ability to identify a certain amount of information received from the world they inhabit and, thus, make it substantial. Compared to other animals, human senses are relatively limited, however, they still manage to develop a detailed, complex, and highly precise internal model of the outside world. This process involves more than interpreting sensory information, including the capacity to detect patterns and relations in the surrounding world. Such ability is considered as a critical element of human intelligence in terms of cognitive psychology.

Explanation and Evaluation

Making sense of the world addresses the psychology of sensation, perception, pattern identification, logical reasoning, and a story structure. The human inclination to draw inferences is actively addressed in the context of building stories to make sense of the world. The power of stories has a particular implementation in the courtroom, where jurors use their comprehension of the world to build, make sense of, and address the gaps in the evidence introduced in criminal trials.

Therefore, making sense of the world is an ordinary and exceptional component of human psychology that can be represented in both everyday life and the courtroom. It is crucial to examine the senses that provide information about the external to the individual world and how this information is used by oneself to make sense of the world. Turner (2015, p. 2) defines sensation as the “process of detecting information about the physical world.” A piece of specific information is sensed directly, including the senses of touch, taste, and smell, when the individual is directly linked with the substance that is being sensed.

There are two basic models to explain the way the information is processed from the human senses. The first model is the bottom-up processing, which is focused on how the information that is obtained from the senses is used on its own. The second one is the top-down processing that deals with the ways the received sensory information is integrated with available knowledge, experience, and expectations.

Most importantly, human perception refers to both types of processing. The bottom-up processing is commonly associated with the psychologist James Gibson, whose core principle implies that the sensory information has everything one needs to make sense of the world. A top-down approach to perception is related to Richard Gregory, who stated that people’s comprehension of the existing world influences their processing of sensory information on a subconscious level.

One of the crucial elements of making sense of the world involves stories, also referred to as narratives. Humans are believed to be naturally inclined to telling stories, which are applied to interpret the world in general terms, as well as the behaviour of each other. Moreover, Stephen Read claims that people are better understood as ‘story understanders and storytellers’ (Turner, 2015, p. 32). Starting from a very young age, humans are especially sensitive to the cause-and-effect relationship in stories to the degree that presumptions about causality are made even in written stories that do not specifically involve cause and effect.

Based on Beal’s study, children managed to address the gaps to make a story meaningful even in the ambiguous cause stories. However, younger children were inclined to provide only one explanation, while older children were more prone to identify both feasible statements. It is noteworthy that even when no cause was delivered, children still included random details to their story to make sense of it. In addition, it is evident that not every situation demands an explanatory narrative. One might consider the great power of stories in everyday life within a broad spectrum of social contexts, including making sense of cause-and-effect relationships and other people’s mindsets. Hence, it is vital to analyse the issue of making sense of the world through stories in the courtroom, the arena, where one may have particularly severe outcomes.

Human intuition and judgement can be utterly wrong in a case when individuals encounter random patterns and possibilities. As described by Hardman (2015), the errors in the process of making sense of the world are not confined to people’s awareness of randomized events, which is a complex issue to understand. There is a wide range of cognitive processes that can lead to misjudgements, even within an everyday context.

A majority of these processes are interpreted as heuristics and biases. For instance, the risk is commonly considered in terms of an everyday sense of danger and needs an understanding of probability and statistics. Tuner (2017) determines such errors in making sense of the world as part of people’s everyday thinking. They occur due to the way in which human cognition developed and, therefore, relate generally to people across the demographic range despite the educational level, background, or intellect.

The stories within a courtroom are re-enacted with severe consequences. As a rule, the prosecution and the defence tell a story in the criminal proceedings. Turner (2015, p. 37) described it as an “adversarial approach” when two opposing faces confront each other. The jury’s mission implies reconstructing all the evidence and arguments, figuring out the truth of the case, and rendering judgement.

From the psychological point of view, jurors take an objective approach to deal with the evidence and arrive at a verdict together with statistical principles to evaluate different data. Nancy Pennington and Reid Hastie designed the story model of juror decision making that is based on the individual interpretations of the case. The order of the evidence provided might also influence the court decisions, which indicates that the chronological order of the story leads to a more coherent verdict.


Considering some of the psychological forces at play in courtrooms together with everyday life cases, it is crucial to provide the students with knowledge about how people make sense of the world and the tendency for humans to make errors in their sense-making process. The workshop should focus on the story model of juror decision-making developed by Pennington and Hastie and the power of stories to understand the psychological basis of the juror’s verdict. In the courtroom, jurors apply their knowledge of the world, as well as of the stories, to reconstruct the evidence presented in the trial. With that said, making sense of the world engages both an everyday and an extraordinary part of human psychology.

Understanding and Explaining Data

Describe what the survey results show

The statistics indicate that people believe in one or more of the specific claims and beliefs, such as mindreading, personality, and health, which are the widespread tenets. Such a predominance of these beliefs makes them an interesting topic to examine within psychology. The YouGov survey, conducted in 2011, involved both male and female respondents of different ages ranging from 18 to 60 years and older, and different regions of the United Kingdom. The study addressed two questions concerning the experience with a psychic or medium, its truthfulness, and whether the participants consider themselves as spiritual at all. The survey also examined whether the respondents believe that psychics have a genuine ability to predict the future and talk to the dead.

It is vital to analyse the ways psychology helps oneself to understand why psychics’ extraordinary claims appear credible to some people. According to a YouGov survey (YouGov, 2011), 23 per cent of the surveyed responded positively to the question if they ever consulted a psychic or medium. Furthermore, 11 per cent reported they did so “just for fun,” although 12 per cent claimed it was made “not just for fun,” which means they took it seriously.

Therefore, they are critical as an academic discipline in psychology and everyday life, since they can be applied in a broad range of contexts, including “census data, crime surveys, economic forecasts, opinion polls and election predictions” (Turner, 2017. p. 56). The data provided in numerical format can summarise and explain a large and complex data record.

Why some people might believe in the abilities psychics claim to demonstrate

The psychics’ skills are considered as genuinely paranormal but very ordinary stage tricks that cover a broad spectrum of activities. As described by Turner (2017), this includes telepathy, telekinesis, psychic projection, psychic photography, divining, divination, clairvoyance, mediumship, psychic healing, and psychic detection. These claims imply mindreading, moving objects by force of the mind, and travelling without the body moving.

In addition, the psychics claim to read someone’s future with the aid of tarot cards or crystal balls, contact and communicate with the dead to transmit vital information, and many others. These claims have two common features, such as not complying with the known scientific laws of the universe and never being demonstrated under properly monitored test conditions.

There are three basic techniques identified by psychologists and other investigators that psychics use to convey the impression of having psychic abilities, including cold reading, warm reading, and hot reading techniques. The statements that psychics make are commonly seen as accurate by those receiving them. The way in which psychics use language might also be an aspect that makes people believe them. Another reason for humans to believe in psychic abilities concerns the base rate fallacy. This implies that people are not conscious of the base rates of many things in general, which makes it a factor the psychics may apply in their readings.

Ultimately, there is a number of stable individual differences that make people believe in psychics abilities, such as “academic achievement, intelligence, critical thinking ability, and fantasy proneness” (Turner, 2017, p. 33). People with a high level of belief in the extraordinary claims of psychics are as well considered to have a higher inclination to perceive meaning where there is neither.

Evaluation of Research Methods

Ecological validity designates the degree to which a small amount of research reflects the real-world framework or the phenomenon currently examining. For example, Gibson aimed at developing a theory of perception that referred to physical objects and movement through the physical world.

The researchers apply ecological validity to their studies, so they represent the physical and social worlds that people interact with. From the theoretical point of view, the analysis with perfect ecological validity engages in researching the phenomenon of significance in the manner it occurs in the real world. At the same time, a study with the ecological validity excluded researches the phenomenon in a way that does not correlate with the way it happens in the real world. In practical terms, the majority of research is usually between the two extremes.

The concept of ecological validity is important in highly applied areas of psychology, including forensic psychology, with the ultimate objective of the research to develop interferences to affect what happens. However, multiple studies did not involve as high level of ecological validity as possible due to the specific reasons. One of them implies that sometimes researchers seek to segregate a single process and examine it without the complexity of a real-world situation.

Another reason is that this concept is only one regard when conducting research, and there is always a need to compromise. It is critical to examine the way jurors use stories to come up with the right verdict in the context of the legal system, namely the courtroom process. According to Turner (2019, p. 68), one should focus on the factors that are undertaken within the framework of the “construct stories” part of the story model. Furthermore, one needs to consider the output from that part of the model to understand how jurors reach a verdict. Apart from the concept of ecological validity, it is also vital to take into account ethical and practical considerations.

The research design inevitably engages some compromises, even when it is narrowed down to a single type of method. Tuner (2019) suggests that the most notable example is where the very best design within ecological validity expressed the worst practical considerations. To be more specific, a live staged trial might have a tremendous ecological validity but is expensive, impractical, and can be wrecked if one of the actors forgets the lines.

In addition, the best types of the case within ecological validity gives rise to the most significant ethical concerns concerning the risk to participants’ psychological well-being. Ethics can never be jeopardized, so it is important to appropriately manage the risk before ethical approval can be provided for the study to proceed. With that said, the focus on ecological validity, designing research, as well as identifying practical and ethical issues, is a useful skill to nurture that contributes to evaluating the research.


Hardman, D. (2015). Everyday errors in making sense of the world. In: J. Turner, C. Hewson, K. Mahendran, and P. Stevens, ed., Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary. (Book 2). Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp. 51–85.

Turner, J. (2015). Making sense of the world. In: J. Turner, C. Hewson, K. Mahendran, and P. Stevens, ed., Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary. (Book 2). Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp. 7–45.

Turner, J. (2017) ‘Week 19: Everyday errors in making sense of the world’. The Open University, pp. 1–109.

Turner, J. (2017) ‘Week 20: Extraordinary claims and extraordinary beliefs’. The Open University, pp. 1–155.

Turner, J. (2019) ‘Week 18: Making sense of the world’. The Open University, pp. 1–150.

YouGov (2011) ‘Do you believe in psychics?’ Web.

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PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Psychological Forces at Play in Courtrooms." February 1, 2022.

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PsychologyWriting. "Psychological Forces at Play in Courtrooms." February 1, 2022.