Psychology researchers Julien Swoap '24, Ashley Krawshuk '24, Rex Fan '23.

Trigger Warning: This article references a case of sexual assault. Please engage in self-care as you read it.

In 2015, Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner sexually assaulted an unconscious woman. He received six months in prison. Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Rebecca Dyer remembers the public trial, especially the use of his good character as defense. Inspired by this case and her previous work on moral character, Dyer decided to study the interaction between blame and moral character with three students this summer. The statistically significant results have the potential to inform future legal issues.

“I think the importance of the research is how to apply the results more specifically so people understand that their judgements are manipulated by how they think about a person, rather than simply by the event that occurs,” Julien Swoap ’24 said. “And that is especially important information for people in the legal system.”

Dyer, Swoap, Rex Fan ’23, and Ashley Krawshuk ’24 designed, distributed, and analyzed the study within a five-week period. Their work included neutral, positive, and negative character descriptions of both the victim and the perpetrator, which when combined, produced nine different sexual assault scenarios.

“In our preliminary research, we didn’t find a study that manipulated both the perpetrator’s and the victim’s moral character, so our study adds more content to the field of psychological research,” Krawshuk said.

Given the sensitivity of the research topic and the importance of ethical human research, the group included trigger warnings in the participant consent form and mental health resources in the debrief. The study asked participants to answer questions on victim and perpetrator blame within their given scenario. By analyzing these answers against the scenario’s character descriptions, researchers were able to find a statistically significant correlation between good moral character and decreased blame in both victims and perpetrators. 

Dyer plans to submit the research for an academic conference next year, but she is also considering ways to share the results in a less academic form, such as an op-ed article for consideration in popular media outlets. “It’s important to talk about this beyond just psychological journals, so our research can have the most impact.”

Research at Hamilton

Through independent projects, the Senior Program, research with faculty members, and summer internships, Hamilton provides many opportunities for students to engage in significant research.

Building off the summer research, Dyer hopes to continue to explore the interaction between blame and moral character. Changing the characters’ race or age, for example, could yield different results that reflect demographic issues.

“Moral psychology can be related to so many real issues that people are experiencing every day,” Fan said. “It can help us understand women’s rights issues and social justice movements, these very real topics, and I’m trying to devote my power to it.”

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