Psychology Professor Awarded NSF Grant

faculty member headshot
Dr. Jennifer Cox

From the November 2018 Desktop News | Dr. Jennifer Cox of UA’s psychology department was recently awarded a two-year $284,000 grant for her research titled “Implicit biases and discretionary prosecutorial decision making” from the National Science Foundation’s Law and Social Sciences Program.

The project, which recently began its data-collecting stage, focuses on the decision-making of prosecutors and how they are affected by gender-related implicit biases in situations of intimate partner violence. Cox was inspired to start this research because of a lack of understanding about the way prosecutors make decisions.

“There’s a lot of research out there about how juries make decisions, and there’s some about how judges do so, but the most powerful people in the criminal justice system are far and away prosecutors,” Cox said. “Prosecutors, in some jurisdictions, can decide whether or not to bring forward charges. They can decide what statute to apply. They can decide whether or not to offer a plea bargain and what that will look like. In some jurisdictions, they can provide sentencing recommendations. So they’re really powerful players, and we don’t know a lot about the way they make decisions.”

Cox’s research focuses on the process that prosecutors go through in order to make their decisions about which cases to take, how to approach them, and what kinds of consequences they will have. Because of this, she wants to look at the implicit biases of prosecutors all over the nation.

“We’re looking at implicit biases, which are unconscious biases that everyone holds,” Cox said. “Everybody’s biased. It’s just people differ in the extent to which they are biased. There’s been a lot of research about how biases impact behavior. We’re pretty sure implicit biases can have an immediate impact on behavior. But it’s less clear on if and when they may impact deliberative decision making.”

Throughout her research, Cox specifically wanted to study implicit bias towards gender roles and the LGBT community. In order to do this, she uses a situation of intimate partner violence and changes the gender of the assailant and victim to see how prosecutors handle the different situations. From there, participants in the study will explain their decision and the process they went through to get there. It was important to Cox to study a historically marginalized group because it allows her to highlight a group that has not frequently been the subject of research in the past.

“I specifically wanted to look at the marginalized group of the LGBT community,” Cox said. “We know that intimate partner violence occurs at the same or higher rates in the LGBT community than it does in opposite-sex relationships. And we are pretty confident that it’s underreported, so we think that it’s even higher. And I thought that we need to know more information about this community and this phenomenon in this community.”

The grant will fund a graduate student to help Cox with her research, as well as purchasing the implicit association exercises from Project Implicit, a nonprofit based at Harvard University. The grant will also help compensate participants for their time.

The National Science Foundation funds almost 11,000 proposals every year, most of which are in the fields of science and engineering. The Law and Social Sciences Program funds interdisciplinary and multi-methodological projects regarding “social scientific studies of law and law-like systems of rules.”