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Accountability and the perseverance of first impressions

Justice, Psychology, biases, evidence

Abstract

Previous research indicates that our initial impressions of events frequently influence how we interpret later information. This experiment explored whether accountability-pressures to justify one’s impressions to others-leads people to process information more vigilantly and, as a result, reduces the undue influence of early-formed impressions on final judgments. Subjects viewed evidence from a criminal case and then assessed the guilt of the defendant. The study varied (1) the order of presentation of pro-vs. anti-defendant information, (2) whether subjects expected to justify their decisions and, if so, whether subjects realized that they were accountable prior to or only after viewing the evidence. The results indicated that subjects given the anti/pro-defendant order of information were more likely to perceive the defendant as guilty than subjects given the pro/anti-defendant order of information, but only when subjects did not expect to justify their decisions or expected to justify their decisions only after viewing the evidence. Order of presentation of evidence had no impact when subjects expected to justify their decisions before viewing the evidence. Accountability prior to the evidence evidence also substantially improved free recall of the case material. The results suggest that accountability reduces primacy effects by affecting how people initially encode and process stimulus information.

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