Could Evidence That “It’s in My Genes” Influence Jurors’ Views of Criminal Responsibility and Punishment?

April 23, 2015

New York, NY – April 23, 2015 – Growing evidence suggests that genetic factors may play a role in criminal behavior. Yet despite concerns that the use of genetic (and neuroimaging) data could unduly influence jurors, participants in a recent study were not influenced by claims that genetic predispositions should reduce punishment. The study, by Paul S. Appelbaum, MD, of Columbia University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry, and colleagues, was published online March 23, 2015, in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law.

In the study, 960 adult Americans took a Web-based survey. The participants, given descriptions of three legal cases, were asked to determine the length of incarceration for a convicted murderer, adjudicate an insanity defense, and decide whether a defendant should receive the death penalty.  Variables included the type of evidence (none, genetic, neuroimaging, both), the heinousness of the crime, and the defendant’s criminal record.  The researchers also assessed participants’ apprehension of the defendant, belief in free will, political ideology, and genetic knowledge.

Although there was some evidence that the genetic data increased apprehension of the defendant, participants were not swayed in their decisions by the scientific evidence. Their decisions were influenced, however, by the heinousness of the crime and the defendant’s criminal record. Beliefs about responsibility and behavior, as well as political orientation, also influenced their decisions.

What do these findings imply about the use of genetic evidence in criminal trials? Dr. Appelbaum noted that “the use of genetic data appears unlikely to yield the desired results of mitigating responsibility or punishment. Thus, its use in the courtroom is unlikely to be extended to areas of criminal law beyond its current use in capital cases, where defendants have much to gain from even a small change in perceptions of culpability.”

“Moving forward,” he said, “we are investigating whether genetic data may have a greater influence over outcome in other legal contexts, such as in juvenile courts and disciplinary hearings.”

Dr. Appelbaum is the Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine, & Law; director of the Division of Law, Ethics, and Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry; and director of the Center for Research on Ethical, Legal & Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic & Behavioral Genetics. His research focuses on the ethical, legal, and social implications of psychiatric genetics, with the aim of establishing an evidence base of how recent developments in genetics, such as personalized genomic sequencing, affect individuals and society.

The title of the paper is “Effects of Behavioral Genetic Evidence on Perceptions of Criminal Responsibility and Appropriate Punishment.”  (Appelbaum PS, Scurich N, Raad R, Psychol Pub Policy Law, pub. online 3/23/15, doi:10.1037/law0000039.)

This study was supported by National Human Genome Research Institute Grant P50HG007257 (Paul S. Appelbaum, principal investigator).

The authors have no conflicts of interest to report.


Columbia University Department of Psychiatry and New York State Psychiatric Institute (Columbia Psychiatry/NYSPI)
New York State Psychiatric Institute (founded in 1896) and the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry have been closely affiliated since 1925. Their co-location in a New York State facility on the NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center campus provides the setting for a rich and productive collaborative relationship among scientists and physicians in a variety of disciplines. Columbia Psychiatry/NYSPI are ranked among the best departments and psychiatric research facilities in the nation and have contributed greatly to the understanding of and current treatment for psychiatric disorders.  The Department and Institute are home to distinguished clinicians and researchers noted for their clinical and research advances in the diagnosis and treatment of depression, suicide, schizophrenia, bipolar and anxiety disorders, and childhood psychiatric disorders.  Their combined expertise provides state-of-the-art clinical care for patients and training for the next generation of psychiatrists and psychiatric researchers.

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Columbia University Center for Research on Ethical, Legal & Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic & Behavioral Genetics
Psychiatric, neurologic and behavioral (PNB) genetics present particular ethical, legal, and social challenges for three main reasons: many PNB disorders and traits are highly stigmatized; uncovering genetic predispositions for PNB disorders and traits could have an impact on widely held perceptions of responsibility for behavior; and many PNB disorders and traits are the result of complex interactions between a person’s genes and her environment, rendering the implications of this kind of genetic data inherently ambiguous. The overriding goal of the Center is to grapple with these challenges, thereby helping our society responsibly realize the promise of this area of genetics.

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InPsych - July 2015, Press Releases