Expert Opinion

Bias-Free Language and Law-Psychology

The importance of thoughtful and bias-free communication in forensic psychology.

By Christopher M. King, JD, PhD

For many reasons, being a good communicator (writer and speaker) is among the most critical of abilities—if not the most important of all—for a professional working at the intersection of law and psychology. The gift of gab provides a framework for the careful and sound thinking needed in all that we do, as well as the “style and grace” (Pinker, 2014) called for in our frequent roles as educators and persuaders. Moreover, ours is a field made up of trainees and professionals of many different educational levels and disciplinary backgrounds, who carry with them assorted professional cultures and values. We engage in sometimes overlapping and sometimes unique professional roles, and we do so with a diverse body of research and service participants. With all this diversity, attending to language's role in constructing “reality” (e.g., shared understandings, differences in attitudes) and as a social fabric within the field is warranted (cf. Jensen et al., 2013). As an example, in court, an attorney may refer to someone by his or her name, or a term like the defendant, with the intent to humanize or dehumanize the referent in the eyes of the fact-finder.

To this end, I have been taking notice lately of how we refer to the persons with whom we work in forensic psychology. First is the use of people-first language for certain groups (e.g., “persons with schizophrenia”) to avoid bias, stigma and dehumanization, and acknowledge individuality (Jensen et al., 2013). Likewise, the introductory sentence in a forensic mental health assessment report identifying the individual who was evaluated uses the person-first form (e.g., “Mr. Smith is a 22-year-old Caucasian man who . . .”). Second is the use of characteristic-first language for other groups, with a positive or negative valence depending. Examples relate to the condition of some individuals (e.g., “psychopathic individuals” or “psychopaths”); adjudicated blameworthiness of others (“general offenders”); professional identity for still others (e.g., “lawyers”); and label for yet others (e.g., “plaintiff,” “forensic patients”). Third is the use of identity- and person-first language in the same breath (e.g., “justice-involved individuals with severe mental illness”).

In the pursuit of bias-free language, combining forms and suffixes are often problematic (see University of Chicago Press Staff, 2010, which discusses the issue for gender bias). Examples common in our field include -path (“one suffering from a disorder (of such a part or system) <psychopath>”); -ic (“having the character or form of”); and -er (“person occupationally connected with . . . person or thing belonging to or associated with . . . one that does or performs (a specified action) . . . one that is”) (Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, n.d.). I'll focus on “-er labels” to illustrate. Referents who are justice-involved are the prototypical objects of such labels. My master's thesis included the word “offender” in its title, the body of my dissertation contained no less than 114 instances of the label, and a review of my CV in December 2016 revealed 17 instances of the term in the titles of my publications and presentations. A Google Scholar search for articles published in Law and Human Behavior ® between 2010 and 2016 returned 265 results using the search string “offender OR offenders OR prisoner OR prisoners OR ‘sexually violent predators.'”

There are several concerns about the efficient -er terms that we continue to use to refer to persons involved in the criminal justice system. First, from a humane perspective, who is to say that the justice-involved condition to which we are referring first or exclusively with these words is less deserving than mental health conditions of efforts to avoid stigma where possible (e.g., owing to the contribution of socioeconomic disadvantage to each). Second, from a fairness or scientific precisionist's perspective, the terms may be misleading in some cases. False arrests and convictions come to mind. Third, from a rehabilitationist's perspective, such terms may be anti-therapeutic to the extent that they reinforce antisocial identities on the part of individuals who are justice-involved, and negative expectations on the part of others (e.g., service providers, politicians, the public). Fourth, the terms arguably give rise to cognitive dissonance when they are used only in the detached forum of academic communications, or otherwise “behind closed doors”( i.e., away from the people subject to justice system control). In the face-to-face communications of actual human service delivery, titles of politeness (e.g., “ladies and gentlemen”) and respect (e.g., “Mr.,” Ms.”) predominate. In sum, increasing the use of people-first language in our field may be an easy step toward professionalism and effectiveness, and actively minimizing unprofessionalism and counterproductiveness. Interesting would be actual data concerning the people-first or condition-first language preferences of people who are justice-involved.

A seeming solution to this cognitive dissonance, one which I have been starting to practice in my teaching at least, has been to simply accept the increased wordiness of defaulting to person-first language. The people-first construction always takes the noun-adjective form “[individuals/people/persons] who are [condition/identity 1] and [condition/identity 2] . . . [condition/identity n]” (see University of Chicago Press Staff, 2010). To illustrate:

  • “Offenders” becomes “persons who have offended.”
  • “Sexually violent predators” becomes “people who have been adjudicated as sexually violent predators.”
  • “Participants were African American prisoners” becomes “participants were individuals who were African American and imprisoned,” or “participants were African American individuals who were imprisoned” (some personal characteristics, such as ethnicity, are a source of pride, and hence call for identity-first language).
  • “Juvenile sex offender risk assessment tools” becomes “risk assessment tools for youths adjudicated as juveniles [and perhaps also ‘or convicted as adults'] for sex offenses.”

There are at least two ways to cope with verbosity. One is to just get used to it, endorsing the values of people-first advocacy as justifying the extra thoughtfulness and effort. In my own teaching, I practice defaulting to being wordy to model for my students. An alternative option is to utilize a lengthier people-first description initially, followed by a brief “hereinafter [short-hand term or phrase]” comment or note. This at least acknowledges the tension between respect for persons and communicative efficiency.

One may question whether my viewpoint is excessively politically correct or coddling. Thus, it is worth noting that the four above-mentioned concerns about characteristic-first nomenclature map on well to four general ethical principles for psychologists—respect for others, justice, beneficence and nonmaleficence, and integrity, respectively. The remaining ethical principle of fidelity and responsibility can serve to motivate likeminded psychologists to educate others about extending the logic of bias-free language from the disability arena to law–psychology generally.

References

-er. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster's online dictionary (11th ed.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/-er

-ic. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster's online dictionary (11th ed.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/-ic

-path. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster's online dictionary (11th ed.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/-path

Jensen, M. E., Pease, E. A., Lambert, K., Hickman, D. R., Robinson, O., McCoy, K. T. . . King, J. K. (2013). Championing person-first language: A call to psychiatric mental health nurses. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 19, 146–151. https://doi.org/10.1177/1078390313489729

Pinker, S. (2014, August 15). 10 ‘grammar rules' it's OK to break (sometimes). The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/15/steven-pinker-10-grammar-rules-break

University of Chicago Press Staff. (2010). The Chicago manual of style (16th ed.). University of Chicago Press.