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Rachel Dolezal, Poverty and the Young Brain, Flawed Humans and Flawed Justice – In Case You Mi

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In this week’s In Case You Missed It (a roundup of articles touching on psychology, health, mental health and social justice issues that we collate from multiple news and commentary websites), we cover the Rachel Dolezal case, the impact of poverty on the young brain, how an evidence-based approach could fix a flawed criminal justice system and more.

Late last week, the curious case of Rachel Dolezal made global headlines. The former head of Spokane, WA’s NAACP chapter (who resigned her position today) was outed by her estranged parents as a white woman posing as African American. While Ms. Dolezal has yet to fully address all the questions about her racial identity, many commenters have taken to social media to speculate on her motives. While we cannot conclude anything definitive about Ms. Dolezal’s case, the authors of this article offer one possibility, what researchers call “self-deception.” In recent years, cognitive psychologists have suggested that self-deception serves a basic psychological function, perhaps created out of one’s negative view of their appearance or other characteristics. While researchers acknowledge that self-deception has some benefits, and could even build confidence, they warn that it creates problems when exhibited in excess. Experts say that people who constantly lie become trapped in those untruths to the point that they create a new reality. These fabrications ultimately allow people to avoid uncomfortable parts of their lives. For some, the anxiety of facing the hard truth about the challenges of adult life — including career, money, sexual identity, and marriage — may be too much to bear. Practicing self-deception may also make it easier to lie to other people.

Others have drawn comparisons between Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner, who recently came out as a transgender woman. Some online commenters employed the term “transracial” to describe Dolezal as a person who feels they are a different race than the one they are born with. Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist and racial identity expert, clarified the difference between these two cases. “I would say being LGBTQ, there is strong evidence that there is a biological [reason behind it],” says Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology and education at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, where he has researched and studied racial identity. “Caitlyn Jenner is not identifying with being a woman because of the upbringing and cultural conditioning.”

“Most people who are transgender, [when they are] as early as 4 or 5, believe already that at some level that they are a child born with the wrong anatomy. I don’t see this [with Dolezal]…. The issue here is honesty,” Wing Sue says, “Deception is being used, and at some level she may believe some of the things she is saying but at another level I think she is very conscious of the statements and actions she is engaged in.”

To learn more about transgender identity issues, read our resource: Answers to Your Questions about Transgender People, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression.

The brain’s foundation, frame, and walls are built in the womb. For most of his career, Pat Levitt, a developmental neuroscientist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, has studied the setbacks and accidents that can make this construction process go awry. More recently, as the science director of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, he has trained his focus on one particular neurotoxin: poverty. As it turns out, the conditions that attend poverty can be toxic to the developing brain. In March, the journal Nature Neuroscience published a major study by a group of researchers on over a thousand children examining the relationships between brain scans and family income and education level. They found that more educated families produced children with greater brain surface area and a more voluminous hippocampus and that living in the lowest income bracket left children with up to six per cent less brain surface area than children from high-income families. Over the past decade, the scientific consensus has become clear: poverty perpetuates poverty, generation after generation, by acting on the brain. The National Scientific Council has been working directly with policymakers to support measures that break this cycle, including better prenatal and pediatric care and more accessible preschool education. Read more about the effects of poverty on children.

An estimated 20% of women are sexually assaulted during their college years.  In a New England Journal of Medicine article released last week, researchers reported that a program at three Canadian universities that taught women how to prevent sexual assault reduced the chances of rape in the next year by half, compared with a group who just received brochures.  In four 3-hour sessions, women were trained to recognize danger and resist pressure to have sex, and trained in physical self-defense.  One participant said “knowing the cues, how to avoid being in situations where there can be the possibility of harm” and tips like keeping an eye on her drink at a party helped, plus that “it’s OK to say no,'” and that sex isn’t owed if a date buys dinner.  Behavioral scientists commented on the remarkable success of this program, but also on the need to target prevention efforts at men as well.

A U.S. Border Patrol internal investigation of 67 shootings incidents, which left 19 people dead, absolved agents of criminal misconduct in all but three cases, which are still pending.   Critics charge that the Border Patrol operates with little transparency or accountability. “When you have someone throwing rocks and someone responding with lethal force, it is just not proportional,” said Juanita Molina, executive director of Border Action Network, a human rights organization based in Tucson.  Chris Rickerd, a border security expert at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, said “there is no assurance to border residents that agents who have used excessive, improper lethal force aren’t on the job in their communities.”  The internal review began in July after a Police Executive Research Forum study criticized the Border Patrol for a “lack of diligence” in investigating deadly incidents.  In a March 2015 post in the Public Interest blog, Dr. J. Manuel Casas wrote on Justice for All… Experiences of Undocumented Youth with Law Enforcement.

With one woman killed every 12 hours, Guatemala has the fourth highest femicide rate in the world and is also the country with the highest number of femicides committed by firearm, according to a 2015 report published by the Geneva Declaration Secretariat. In 2010, after years of intense lobbying by women’s rights organizations, Guatemala became the first country in the world to create specialized courts for femicide and other forms of violence against women. Most of the judges who hear the cases are women who receive training in gender issues. The courts also employ a psychologist and a social worker and have daycare facilities to look after children while their mothers testify so child care does not prevent their participation in trials. With conviction and sentencing above 30 percent, compared to 10 percent in ordinary courts, the new femicide courts have started to tackle Guatemala’s culture of impunity. However, there is still plenty of work ahead. Wichita State University professor Dinorah Azpuru said “Judicial institutions have to be stronger to punish those who commit violence against women but at the same time people have to understand that it’s wrong to do that… If the culture of respect towards women doesn’t change in the household it won’t matter how good our institutions are.” Learn more about APA’s work to end gender-based violence against women around the world.

Opinion: Flawed humans, flawed justice – The New York Times

What would it take to achieve true criminal justice in America? In this opinion piece, Adam Benforado, an associate professor of law at Drexel University, argues that it would require acknowledging that our legal system is based on an inaccurate model of human behavior, i.e., untested assumptions about what deceit looks like, how memories work and when punishment is merited. Benforado argues that we now have tools based on psychological science — from experimental methods and data collection approaches to brain-imaging technologies — that could establish a new and robust foundation for our criminal justice system. Our current system relies on fundamental flaws in its legal processes and structures. Reliance on eyewitness testimony, a suspect’s signed confession or even a forensic match to the crime scene can be undermined and biased in a myriad of ways. Jurors, police officers and even judges are swayed by countless forces (e.g., implicit bias) beyond their conscious awareness or control. Benforado calls for our system to employ an evidence-based approach that can remove or minimize factors that bias the judicial process.

What do you think of these stories? Did we leave anything out?

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