Psychological mechanisms in criminal justice: Deconstructing objectivity


Human cognition has evolved through time adapting to the various, mostly survivalist needs of humans in their various historical settings. The complexity and dangers of the outer world have caused the brain to adapt decision-making strategies to be efficient in terms of both time and energy consumption. This has led to a two-tier reality of human decision-making that, on the one hand, facilitates faster and more energy-efficient responses when such responses are needed, and on the other hand, allows for slower and more deliberate decisions in different circumstances (Kahneman’s systems 1 and 2 respectively). However, the time- and energy-saving decision-making is less than perfect and often leads to mistakes in judgment. These have been studied in various contexts (see e.g. authors like Kahneman, Ariely, Thaler, Sunstein) and might be more or less harmful in our everyday lives, but are most alarming in settings that require deliberate decisions upon which people’s well-being, status and future in society depend.

Decision-making in legal settings is one such problematic area, made worse by the illusion of neutrality, with which the law veils itself in order to function and preserve the image of objectivity in society. Potential effects of stereotypes and prejudice in the criminal justice system (or for that matter, in any legal context) is an extremely sensitive topic that has been well under-researched. Contemporary scholars have slowly been lifting that veil, revealing a very human background characterised by deliberate and meticulous decision-making one would expect on the one hand, but absent-minded and biased decisions one would not expect and especially not welcome as well (see e.g. authors Guthrie, Rachlinski, Wistrich, Isaacs, Englich, Mussweiler, Strack).

Decision-making throughout criminal justice is plagued by “mistakes” that often arise out of unconscious bias (Benforado) and can be easily explained by using well-known psychological concepts, such as stereotyping and cognitive biases. Judicial decision-making seems particularly emblematic as it carries the strongest sense of objectivity and has arguably the most profound consequences for individual people’s lives. Scientific evidence on how strongly various psychological mechanisms play out in the courtroom is scarce and often contradictory. It has, however, become evident, that courtrooms are by far not immune to mistakes in judgment that arise from psychological characteristics rather than legal considerations. The existing body of research, however, comes mostly from Anglo-American criminal-law systems and focuses on jury decision-making. Studies on professional judges and other professional decision-makers are very rare generally and almost non-existent in the field of stereotyping and prejudice in particular. Therefore, the findings of this research may, on the one hand, bring important new insights on this issue and, on the other hand, pave the way for further research on similar psychological mechanisms influencing other legal professionals in other legal and administrative areas.

Conferences, seminars

Briški, Lora. Spolna avtonomija in koncept slabotne osebe. V: Zbornik 2019. 1. natis. Ljubljana: Lexpera, GV založba. cop. 2019, str. 21-28.

Drobnjak, Marko. Implicit bias against dialectal features: forensic linguistics and speech perception in legal proceeding : predavanje na Phonology Lab, Department of Linguistics, University of Washington, Washington, November 19, 2019.

Drobnjak, Marko. Percepcija slovenščine v pravnih postopkih in načini za profiliranje posameznikov na podlagi govora : predavanje v okviru srečanj SDJT JOTA, 21. maj 2020 [MS Teams].

Hafner, Miha. Theme: Spregledana perspektiva: predavanje v okviru TEDx University of Ljubljana, November 10, 2020.

Hafner, Miha. Spreminjanje možganov kot kazenskopravna sankcija : prispevek na Simpoziju za pravno in socialno filozofijo, Ljubljana, Pravna fakulteta, 23. sep. 2020.

Mihelj Plesničar, Mojca, Šugman Stubbs, Katja. Another veil of ignorance? Subjectivity and objectivity in legal decision-making. V: EUROCRIM 2020 : 20th Annual Conference of the European Society of Criminology, 10-11 September 2020 – online edition : book of abstracts, 20th Annual Conference of the European Society of Criminology – online edition, 10.-11. Sep. 2020.

Briški, Lora, Mihelj Plesničar, Mojca. Stereotyping when sentencing for rape?. Inštitut za kriminologijo pri Pravni fakulteti v Ljubljani, ISSN 2712-4908, 2020, str. [3].

Mihelj Plesničar, Mojca, Hafner, Miha, Šugman Stubbs, Katja. ˝It can´t be!˝ : The effects of anchoring on sentencing decisions. Inštitut za kriminologijo pri Pravni fakulteti v Ljubljani, ISSN 2712-4908, 2020, str. [6].

Hafner, Miha, Mihelj Plesničar, Mojca, Šugman Stubbs, Katja. Searching for stereotypes and prejudice in sentencing : a study on professional judges. Inštitut za kriminologijo pri Pravni fakulteti v Ljubljani, ISSN 2712-4908, 2020, str. [6-7].

Šugman Stubbs, Katja, Mihelj Plesničar, Mojca. O objektivnosti in subjektivnosti pri sojenju : prispevek na Simpoziju za pravno in socialno filozofijo, Ljubljana, Pravna fakulteta, 23. sep. 2020.

Mihelj Plesničar, Mojca. “Ne pomeni ne”, ustreznejša obravnava spolne kriminalitete : predavanje na strokovnem posvetu Samo ja pomeni ja – zagate na področju preprečevanja in ustavljanja spolnega nasilja, Fakulteta za socialno delo, Ljubljana, 25. 11. 2019.

Mihelj Plesničar, Mojca. Sankcioniranje spolne kriminalitete : predavanje na Kazenskopravni sodniški šoli, 23. okt. 2020.

Mihelj Plesničar, Mojca. Sankcioniranje spolne kriminalitete : prispevek na 12. konferenci kazenskega prava in kriminologije, Portorož, GH Bernardin, 3. in 4. december 2019.

Mihelj Plesničar, Mojca. Za tančico nevednosti : subjektivnost in objektivnost na sodišču : prispevek na 10. konferenci dobrih praks v sodstvu, 12. december 2019, Kongresni center Brdo pri Kranju.


Mihelj Plesničar, Mojca (intervjuvanec). ˝Včasih je bilo nepojmljivo, da lahko pride do posilstva tudi v zakonski zvezi˝. Dnevnik online, ISSN 1581-3037. [Spletna izd.], 11. dec. 2019.

Mazi, Blaž (oseba, ki intervjuva), Drobnjak, Marko (intervjuvanec). Ali način govora vpliva na odločanje sodišč? : raziskava o tem, kakšna je na slovenskih sodiščih percepcija govora v dialektu, (Jezikovni pogovori). Ljubljana: Radiotelevizija Slovenija javni zavod, 2020.

Scientific publications

Šugman Stubbs, K., Mihelj Plesničar, M. (2020). Psihološki vidiki sodniškega odločanja : od objektivnosti k subjektivnosti in spet nazaj.  [Psychological aspects of judging: from objectivity to subjectivity and back again]. Revija za kriminalistiko in kriminologijo, 71 (3), 194-207.

Project team:

Miha Hafner
Katja Šugman Stubbs
Renata Salecl
Aleš Završnik
Barbara Bizilj
Lora Briški
Marko Drobnjak
Eva Bertok
Ana Babnik
Lara Dular

Slovenian Research Agency  

Project number: J5-1795 (B)

1. 7. 2019 – 30. 6. 2022