One sees frequent discussions in neuroscience journals (like this one in Trends in Cognitive Sciences) over whether, and to what extent, neuroscience should influence public policy. Does the willingness on of some behavioral scientists to translate the legal and policy implications of their work really help, or does this represent growing misuse of neuroscience to attach scientific authority to policy, plus a clutch of neuroscientists trying to overstate their findings for a taste of power? Such debate makes studies like this one of of Aspinwall et al. very relvant:
We tested whether expert testimony concerning a biomechanism of psychopathy increases or decreases punishment. In a nationwide experiment, U.S. state trial judges (N = 181) read a hypothetical case (based on an actual case) where the convict was diagnosed with psychopathy. Evidence presented at sentencing in support of a biomechanical cause of the convict's psychopathy significantly reduced the extent to which psychopathy was rated as aggravating and significantly reduced sentencing (from 13.93 years to 12.83 years). Content analysis of judges' reasoning indicated that even though the majority of judges listed aggravating factors (86.7%), the biomechanical evidence increased the proportion of judges listing mitigating factors (from 29.7 to 47.8%). Our results contribute to the literature on how biological explanations of behavior figure into theories of culpability and punishment.