Open Your Mind: A Q&A with Glendon psychology researcher Timothy Moore

Glendon Psychology Professor Timothy Moore
Timothy Moore

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Timothy Moore, professor of psychology and chair of the Psychology Department at York University’s Glendon College.

Moore teaches Psychology & Law and has served as a consultant or expert witness in dozens of criminal trials in both Canada and the U.S. on issues related to memory, police investigative practices and interrogations.  

Q. Please describe your field of current research.

A. My research tackles questions that arise at the intersection of criminal law and cognitive psychology.  For example, how well do people understand the protections that the Charter affords them when they are arrested or detained by police? What are the circumstances that give rise to false confessions and how do jurors evaluate confession evidence? Are police investigative practices well informed by social science principles?

Timothy Moore
Timothy Moore

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. My involvement in forensic psychology was an indirect result of the Judas Priest trial in 1990. Judas Priest was a heavy metal rock band from the U.K. In 1985, two Nevada teenagers committed suicide shortly after listening to one of the band’s albums. The band and CBS records became co-defendants in a $7million wrongful death lawsuit in which it was alleged that subliminal messages in the heavy metal rock music had (somehow) triggered the suicides. I was retained by the defence, along with two other psychologists to comment on the scientific plausibility of the claims.  The band was acquitted.   The fallout from the trial and from an article I wrote describing some of the issues resulted in more contact with the criminal justice system. My interest (and further participation) mushroomed from there.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. Police investigative procedures are affected in important ways by research findings from cognitive and social psychology. Evidence-based practices are preferable to those based on tradition, convention or unfounded assumptions. Wrongful convictions are sometimes a consequence of ill-advised investigative techniques. There is a growing realization that social science has a lot to offer in terms of improving the fact-finding process.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. There are basic core principles of psychology that are highly relevant to understanding witnesses’ testimony and the methods that were used to elicit such testimony. The foundations of social cognition, memory and persuasion that underlie a person’s decision making have been identified and elaborated upon for decades. The principles themselves are not new; what is unique is the focus on the forensic contexts in which these principles are operating (e.g., false confessions, illusory memories, mistaken eyewitness identifications).

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.) 

A. I testified several years ago in a murder trial in a northeastern state where they still have the death penalty. My testimony addressed the capabilities of child witnesses and their vulnerability to social pressure. The prosecutor relied heavily on the testimony of a five-year-old boy who had ostensibly identified the killer, but not before he had been interviewed numerous times over several weeks by the lead detectives. There was a hung jury (11 to 1 for conviction). The holdout wouldn’t budge. A mistrial was declared. While awaiting a second trial, the defendant hired a new lawyer who unearthed new (and exculpatory) evidence. The defendant was acquitted at his second trial.

Another example comes from research my students and I conducted that explored how the police deliver the “right to silence” caution to detainees, and how well the latter understand what they’ve been told. The wording of the cautions varies widely across jurisdictions. Our studies, and others like them, have shown that even under ideal circumstances, a significant proportion of highly literate participants do not fully understand the message.  To make matters worse, to my surprise (and alarm), I recently determined that some versions of the caution in current usage rely on phrases that are a holdover from England’s Administration of Justice Acts of 1848. The terminology is archaic. Should it surprise us that comprehension is incomplete when the warning being delivered has used jargon that was in fashion over 150 years ago?

Timmoore2Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. Some undercover police operations last a year or more and generate thousands of pages of notes and documents that become part of the evidence that is disclosed when charges are laid. The sheer volume of these disclosures can be daunting because the materials are not especially well organized to begin with. The first time this happened, I despaired of being able to make any sense of it at all. I was going to decline getting involved, but there was a fortuitous six-month adjournment which provided some respite. That gave me time to figure out how to manage, and consequently, I am now prepared for similar deluges of files when they arrive.

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. The criminal justice system is saturated with assumptions about human behavior and its causes. There is no shortage of interesting and important lines of inquiry.

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. Forensic psychology is, by definition, interdisciplinary. The law/psychology alliance is exciting from a research perspective, and the benefits to the justice system are immeasurable.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. My dissertation was in psycholinguistics. I stayed in that area for a while and then got engaged in a number of other projects. The psycholinguistics background has come in handy because of the frequency with which communications breakdown (either in court or in the interrogation room).

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. I teach a  third-year course in Psychology & Law. Not only is the course content influenced by my research, there is a lot of legal talent in Toronto. The guests who come to my classes include police detectives, criminal lawyers, and the wrongly convicted.

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. Pay attention to your own interests and penchants. Don’t do what somebody else thinks is important. Do what you think is important.

Tell us a bit about yourself:

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. A long time. My undergraduate honours thesis was published in 1968.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. My mother was a librarian so I can’t remember a time when I was not reading. As a kid, I used to read novels with a flashlight under the bed covers when I was supposed to be sleeping. I admire Richard Ford, Ian McEwan, Michael Crummie, Sam Harris … the list goes on. As for films, The Lives of Others was pretty gripping. Tiffany Burns’ documentary on Mr. Big is an eye-opener for those not familiar with RCMP undercover operations.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. Rectify (Netflix); Annaldur Indridason novels; Blood in the Water – Heather Ann Thompson.

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. My aunt. She was part of the research team at Harvard when John Enders was spearheading the development of the Salk vaccine. She died of cancer when she was quite young, and I was too young to understand the significance of what she had been doing.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. I make coffee tables. In the summer, I ride my road bike.