Attribution Theory and Perceptions of  Criminal Responsibility by Mock Jurors
Brenna M. Henson


The criminal sentences imposed by mock jurors were examined in order to determine if Locus of Control was an influence on perceived responsibility and therefore, severity of punishment.  The participant sample consisted of 94 students from a private, Midwestern, liberal arts college.  Participants were given a two-part survey.  Part one of the survey contained eight crime scenarios for which participants were asked to determine appropriate punishment.  In part two of the survey, Locus of Control inclination is determined using the Adult Nowicki-Strickland Internal-External Control Scale Items.  Findings did not support the researcher’s hypothesis by a significance level of p =.110.  Further research would be needed in order to determine if consideration should be given to Locus of Control inclination within the jury selection process.


            Since the emergence of Psychology as a discipline, great attention has been given to the advantages that may arise from the application of psychological concepts within the legal system.  Receiving increasing attention is the practice of applying social science methods to the American jury selection process in both civil and criminal trials (Hastie, Penrod, & Pennington, 1983).  Countless studies have been conducted in an effort to examine the influence of personality, attitude, demographic characteristics and even physicality to jury verdicts and severity of sentencing.  The current research has lent itself to controversy with researchers conflicted over the existence of systematic and applicable results which may be resolved only by the discovery of a precise methodological approach to jury selection (Patterson, 1986).

Juror Perception of Guilt

            Various psychological studies have been conducted in order to examine the influence of  personal characteristics such as: race, age, attractiveness, etc. upon the verdicts of both actual and mock jurors.  It has been found that sentences imposed by juries are significantly related to defendant ethnicity and that sentences are further influenced by jury ethnic composition in relation to the ethnicity of the defendant (Daudistel, Hosch, Holmes, & Graves, 1999).  Smith & Hed (1979) concluded older defendants are judged more harshly than young defendants and attractive people are judged less harshly than unattractive people.  In a more recent study, researchers found speech accommodation to be significantly correlated with jurors attribution of guilt (Dixon & Tredoux, 1994).

            Through the examination of mock jury trials and experiments, researchers have begun to identify which trial participant (e.g. defendant, attorney) characteristics have the greatest influence on a juror’s verdict as well as which evidence is most persuasive to a jury.  However, psychologists have recently begun to examine with greater frequency the personality characteristics possessed by jurors which serve to influence decisions regarding both guilt and severity of punishment.

 Attribution Theory

Some data are now available for approaching criminal and delinquent acts from a cognitive standpoint for both the offender and those in a position of judgement.  Research suggests there may be a variety of factors behind any criminal offense and just as many behind attributions of guilt.  According to Debuyst (1985), all crimes involve an attribution process, as well as all verdicts. 

Attribution theory was developed over time from the theories of Fritz Heider, Edward Jones, Keith Davis, and Harold Kelley, all of whom were social psychologists.  It has been viewed among psychologists as relevant to the study of person perception , event perception , attitude change, the acquisition of self-knowledge, therapeutic interventions, and much more (Ross & Fletcher, 1986).  The concept of attributional style was discussed by Abramson, Seligman, &  Teasdale (1978) in the reformulated model of learned helplessness and is defined as “the habitual way in which people explain positive or negative events in their lives”.  This concept has been further applied to the idea that an individuals’ personal attributional style will be imposed upon their perception of the events occurring in the lives of others. 

Attribution theory arranges three types of attributions in a hierarchical order from cause to responsibility to blame (Calhoun & Townsley, 1991).  Blame presupposes responsibility, and responsibility presupposes cause.  However, cause does not necessarily lead to responsibility or responsibility to blame.  Attributions of cause are merely explanations given for the occurrence of an event.  Attributions of responsibility require examination of an individual’s behavior in a social context, such as the commission of a crime against another person.  Responsibility attributions are judgements that presuppose a causal attribution and concern an individual’s accountability or answerability for some event.  Attributions of blame presuppose both a causal attribution and an attribution of accountability and allow for the perception of fault on the part of an individual (Bradbury & Fincham, 1990).  Whether or not this chain of presuppositions is complete determines one’s ability to find fault within themselves or others.

Locus of Control

            Locus of Control is one of the most researched constructs in the field of personality (Rotter, 1990).  Since the mid-1960’s, there have been numerous studies concerning locus of control and interest in the construct and its’ application continues to grow.  The construct has proven to lend itself to a wide variety of application in both interpersonal phenomena such as seeking information and taking political action and intrapsychic phenomena such as; defense externality and attribution (Strickland, 1989). 

            People with an internal locus of control believe they control the events and therefore the consequences in their lives.  In contrast, people who possess an external locus of control believe that outside events are the driving force in their lives.  Consequently, an internal person sees his/herself as responsible for their actions and deserving of appropriate punishment.  While an external person finds blame in sources outside his/herself.  Ideally, both the internal and the external person will attribute this same level of responsibility to others.  Previous research has indicated internal-external locus of control inclination in trial judges to be an effective predictor as to the severity of dispensed criminal sentences (Phares & Wilson, 1972).  It is, therefore, hypothesized that mock jurors who possess an internal locus of control will dispense harsher criminal sentences than will jurors who possess an external locus of control.    Method


A sample population of 94 students at a private Midwestern college was surveyed.  Survey demographics revealed the population included sixty-five female students and twenty-eight male students with an age range from eighteen to thirty-nine years (M = 19.99).  Participants were also asked to report class rank (Freshman N = 22, Sophomore N = 38, Junior N = 14, Senior N = 14, Missing N = 6) and residency status ( On Campus N = 14, Off Campus N = 57, With Parents N = 17, Missing N = 6).  All students were advised that their participation in the study was on a voluntary basis.  Volunteers were treated in accordance with the “Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct” (American Psychological Association, 1992).


            The HCP Inventory, a two part, self-report survey, was administered to the study participants.  Part one of the survey consisted of eight felony crime scenarios with Illinois Criminal Code sentencing options represented on a 1 to 5 Likert-type scale (1 = most lenient possible punishment, 5 = most severe possible punishment). 

CPS #1- Mental Illness (Male)

A 26 year old man is charged with Aggravated Battery of a Senior Citizen.  Witnesses claim the man suddenly turned and brutally attacked an elderly pedestrian on the street with the elderly man’s cane. The defendant told police the elderly man was a disguised KGB agent who had been following him for months.  A court appointed psychologist has diagnosed the young man as a Paranoid Schizophrenic, however the psychologist believes the man is able to distinguish right from wrong.  

                        1                           2                      3                           4                        5
2 yrs Probation            Mental               3 yrs                    4-6 yrs               7 yrs
& Counseling           Institution      Imprisonment         Imprisonment       Imprisonment

CPS #2- Sexual Assault (Female)

A 25 year old female is charged with Criminal Sexual Assault.  The victim is a 16 year old male whose parents pressed charges after discovering their son had been involved in a sexual relationship with the woman for two years.  Both the defendant and the victim claim they are in love and have done nothing wrong.

1                                 2                                3                              4                         5

        2 yrs Probation        4 yrs Probation            4 yrs                    10 yrs              15 yrs
& Counseling        Imprisonment       Imprisonment     Imprisonment

CPS #3- Battered Wife Syndrome

A 57 year old woman is charged with the 2nd Degree Murder of her 60 year old husband.  The man was asleep in their bed around 11pm when his wife stood over him and fired 3 shots into his head.  She called 9-1-1 and admitted she had just killed her husband.  There had been multiple domestic disturbance calls to the couple’s home over their 39 year marriage.  Doctors confirmed the woman had sustained massive facial trauma and 2 broken ribs the morning of the shooting.  

 1                                     2                                3                                 4                 5

       Not Guilty               4 yrs Probation              4 yrs                      10 yrs                   15 yrs

      Self-Defense/             & Counseling         Imprisonment        Imprisonment       Imprisonment

Battered Wife Syndrome

CPS #4- Death Penalty

A 19 year old male is charged with the Armed Robbery of a convenience store as well as 2nd Degree Murder in the shooting death of the store clerk.  He has an extensive criminal history.  Store surveillance tapes suggest the defendant became angered because there was only $57 in the cash register which led to the shooting.

1                                   2                                3                                 4                           5

          12 yrs                      20 yrs                     30 yrs                 Natural Life         Death

      Imprisonment         Imprisonment         Imprisonment        Imprisonment       Penalty


CPS #5- Mental Illness (Female)

A 43 year old female is charged with Retail Theft.  She is the owner of a successful ladies boutique and financially well-off.  While shopping in a mall jewelry store, she distracted the clerk and slipped a $1200.00 diamond ring into her purse.  A court appointed psychologist suggests the woman suffers from kleptomania, which makes her unable to control her impulses to steal.

1                                      2                                3                               4                              5

   12 mo. Probation         30 mo. Probation           2 yrs                   3-4 yrs                  5 yrs

                                        & Counseling        Imprisonment       Imprisonment     Imprisonment

CPS #6- Self-Defense

A 41 year old male prison inmate is charged with Involuntary Manslaughter in the death of a fellow inmate.  The defendant claims to have been attacked by the second inmate while showering in what appears to be an attempted sexual assault.  A fight ensued and the defendant  struck his attackers head on the concrete shower floor resulting in his death. 

1                             2                                 3                                 4                               5

       Not Guilty         Anger Management    2 yrs Additional  3-4 yrs Additional  5 yrs Additional

     Self-Defense             Classes                 Imprisonment       Imprisonment      Imprisonment


CPS #7- Drunk Driver (Female)

A 22 year old female is charged with Reckless Homicide resulting from a drunk driving accident.  After leaving a New Year's Eve party with a friend, the woman lost control of her car striking a telephone pole.  Her  24 year old male passenger was killed instantly.  The woman has no prior drunk driving offenses. 

1                             2                                 3                                 4                               5

    2 yrs Probation      4 yrs Probation             3 yrs                   4-6 yrs                   7 yrs

    & DUI Classes         & DUI Classes        Imprisonment       Imprisonment      Imprisonment


CPS #8- Under Duress (Male)

A man is charged with Armed Robbery.  The 38 year old husband and father of 4 robbed a local bank at gun point.  He had been laid off from his job for 6 months and had received notice the day before the robbery that the bank intended to foreclose on his home.  No one was injured during the crime and the weapon used was actually his son’s toy gun. 

       1                      2                                 3                                 4                               5

      5 yrs Probation           5 yrs                   10-15 yrs              15-20 yrs                25 yrs

          & Fine                 Imprisonment        Imprisonment       Imprisonment      Imprisonment


            Part two of the survey administered the Adult Norwicky-Strickland Internal-External Control Scale Items, consisting of forty statements recording Yes/No responses (1 = Yes, 2 = No).  Participant total scores for this section were represented in a range of 58.00 to 78.00 with 58.00 being the least controlled by external factors and 78.00 being most controlled by external factors.


Crime and Punishment Scenario Responses

            Using the frequencies reported by the ninety-four survey participants on a 1 to 5 scale, the most popular sentencing option for each Crime and Punishment Scenario (CPS) was determined as follows;  CPS 1- Mental Illness (Male) 44.7% of the population chose the Mental Institution option, CPS 2- Sexual Assault (Female)  57.4% of the population chose the 4 years Probation and Counseling option, CPS 3- Battered Wife Syndrome 38.3% of the population chose the 4 years Probation and Counseling option,  CPS 4- Death penalty 34% of the population chose the Natural Life Imprisonment option, CPS 5- Mental Illness (Female) 71.3% of the population chose the 30 months Probation and Counseling option, CPS 6- Self-Defense 39.4% of the population chose the Not Guilty/Self-Defense option, CPS 7- Drunk Driving (Female) 44.7% of the population chose the 4 years Probation and Counseling option, CPS 8- Under Duress 56.4% of the population chose the 5 years Probation and Fine option.

            The CPS scores had a possible range of 8.00 to 40.00 and an actual range of 12.00 to 27.00.

Locus of Control Scale Responses

            Study participants were scored based upon their Yes or No responses to the forty items contained in part two of the survey (1 = Yes, 2 = No), resulting in their Locus of Control Score.  The study LOC score had a possible range of 40.00 (least influenced by external factors) to 80.00 (most influenced by external factors) and an actual range of 58.00 to 78.00.  The fiftieth percentile was located at 69.50 determining for the purpose of this study that participants with LOC scores of 69.00 and below would be identified as “Internal” and participants scoring 70.00 or higher would be identified as “External”. 

Upon further examination of the data it was found that the largest majority of the study population was contained in the two midrange LOC scale scores of 69.00 and 70.00 (13% of the population = 69.00, 11% of the population = 70.00).  The most Internal LOC score of 58.00 was represented by only 1% of the study population and the most External LOC score of 78.00 was represented by only 2% of the study population. 

Only one participant scoring among the six most internally controlled also possess one of the six highest CPS scores (see Table 1).   


            The principle hypothesis for this study was tested using a Pearson’s Correlation Coefficient; Jurors who possess an internal locus of control will impose maximum sentences with greater frequency than jurors who possess an external locus of control (r = -.169,  p = .110). A correlation coefficient of -.169 suggests that severity of punishment increases as the number of external factors influencing an individual decreases, although not to a significant level.  


            LOC and Mental Illness

The nine remaining study hypotheses were examined for significance using a t-test yielding the following results; Jurors who possess an external locus of control are more likely to accept an insanity plea from a male defendant than jurors who possess an internal locus of control (1-5 scale;  E-loc M = 2.11,  I-loc M = 2.07,  p = .841).  Jurors who possess an external locus of control are more likely to accept an insanity plea from a female defendant than jurors who possess an internal locus of control (1-5 scale;  E-loc M = 2.31,  I-loc M = 2.52,  p = .250).  

            LOC and Sexual Assault

            Jurors who possess an internal locus of control are more likely to impose the maximum sentence on a defendant charged with sexual assault than jurors who possess an external locus of control (1-5 scale;  I-loc M = 1.91,  E-loc M = 1.72,  p = .207). 

LOC and Battered Wife Syndrome

Jurors who possess an external locus of control are more likely to accept a defense of Battered Wife Syndrome than jurors who possess an internal locus of control (1-5 scale;  E-loc M = 2.41,  I-loc M = 2.15,  p = .310).

LOC and Death Penalty

 Jurors who possess an internal locus of control are more likely to impose the death penalty than jurors who possess an external locus of control (1-5 scale;  I-loc M = 3.50,  E-loc M = 3.33,  p = .475).  A total of 17 participants chose the death penalty option for CPS 4, of these, 8 = I-loc, 8 = E-loc, 1 = score missing, suggesting Locus of Control inclination has little to do with dispensation of the death penalty in criminal cases.

LOC and Self-Defense

Jurors who possess an external locus of control are more likely to accept a plea of self defense than jurors who possess an internal locus of control (1-5 scale;  E-loc M = 1.87,  I-loc M = 2.39,  p = .045). 

LOC and Drunk Driving

Jurors who possess an internal locus of control are more likely to impose maximum sentence on a defendant convicted of a drunk driving related death than jurors who possess an external locus of control (1-5 scale;  I-loc M = 2.70,  E-loc M = 2.53,  p = .478).

LOC and Crimes Committed Under Duress

 Jurors who possess an internal locus of control are more likely to impose maximum sentence on a defendant whose crime was committed under duress than jurors who possess an external locus of control (1-5 scale;  I-loc M = 1.59,  E-loc M = 1.47,  p = .429).

Gender and Battered Wife Syndrome

  Regardless of locus of control inclination, female jurors are more likely to accept a defense of Battered Wife Syndrome than male jurors (1-5 scale;  Females M = 2.11,  Males M = 2.79,  p = .014).


            The experimenter’s hypothesis which predicted a gender difference would exist when asked whether or not to accept a plea of Battered Wife Syndrome was supported by the study data.  This finding differs from other existing research regarding gender differences in criminal responsibility and sentencing.  Steffensmeir & Hebert (1999) found in their study of gender affect on the sentencing of criminal defendants that females are somewhat harsher in their sentencing decisions than are males.  

Results of the present study suggest a relationship between Locus of Control inclination and perceptions of guilt.  A significant difference was found with regard to the acceptance of a plea of self-defense by internally controlled versus externally controlled participants.  While the other study hypotheses did not yield significant differences they did display a trend in the data falling as predicted, suggesting further investigation on the topic is warranted.

Study Limitations

            Upon examination of the study results it was determined that the largest majority if the study population was contained within the Midrange Locus of Control scores, thus blurring the lines between Internal and External.  This may be due to the use of only college students in the study.  Many researchers agree that Locus of Control becomes more internal with age and independence.  College students are in essence just beginning to exercise control over their own lives, possibly making them an inappropriate sample for this type of research.  The current study was further limited by the availability of an evenly distributed sample with regard to gender.    

Future Research

            Future studies could incorporate a wider cross-section of the general population.  Also investigated should be the influence of educational level upon sentencing decisions, as the average American jury would not be limited to participants with access to a college education.   Previous research has indicated cross-cultural differences with regard to criminal sentencing and perceived guilt and should be considered within the context of Locus of Control as well.



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            Bradbury, T.N. & Fincham, F.D. (1990).  Attributions in marriage:  Review and critique.  Psychological Bulletin, 107, 3-33.

            Calhoun, K. & Townsley, R. (1991).  Attributions of responsibility for acquaintance rape.  In A. Parrot & L. Bechhofer (Eds.), Acquaintance rape:  The hidden crime. (pp. 57-70). New York: Wiley.

            Daudistel, H.C., Hosch, H.M., Holmes, M.D., & Graves, J.B. (1999).  Effects of defendant ethnicity on juries’ dispositions of felony cases.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29, 317-336.

            Debuyst, C. (1985).  Mo & K Thologique et Criminologique.  Brussels: Mardaga.

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                Steffensmeier, D. & Hebert, C. (1999).  Women and men policymakers:  Does the judge’s gender affect the sentencing of criminal defendants?.  Social Forces, 77, 1163-1196.


Table 1


Most Internally and Externally Controlled Participants and their CPS Scores


Participant #                 Locus of Control Score            CPS Score      


                        23                                58.00                                 25

                        49                                60.00                                 19 

                        67                                61.00                                 17

                         71                                61.00                                 27 *

                         10                                62.00                                 21

                         75                                62.00                                 18



                        29                                78.00                                 25

                        46                                78.00                                 22

                          5                                 77.00                                 23

                        47                                77.00                                 14

                        64                                77.00                                 17

                        60                                76.00                                 17


* indicates highest CPS total of all participants

NOTE:  CPS scores had a possible range of 8 to 40 and an actual range of 12 to 27.  Locus of Control scores had a possible range of 40.00 (least externally controlled) to 80.00 (most externally controlled) and an actual range of  58.00 to 78.00.