Lauren Clatch: 2022 Doctoral Dissertation Research Excellence Award Winner

May 26, 2022

FABBS is delighted to highlight the exceptional work of young scholars. The FABBS Doctoral Dissertation Research Excellence Awards honor graduate student scientists who have conducted research of superior quality and with broader societal impact.

The opportunity to nominate students for these awards is offered to our Departmental and Division Affiliates. This year, nominations were reviewed by a committee of current and former FABBS Board members, including Jeffrey Schall, Frances Gabbay, and Adriana Galván. The committee was impressed with the strength of the applicants, and felt privileged to be able to see a preview of the future of our sciences.

We are excited to introduce you to 2022 award winner Lauren Clatch, from the University of Minnesota, whose outstanding work focused on Bargaining for Freedom: A Person-by-Situation Approach to Studying Plea-Bargain Decision-Making.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your area of research?

My name is Lauren Clatch, and other than two years spent in New York City completing my Master’s in Forensic Psychology I’ve bounced around the Midwest. I was born in St. Louis, grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, returned to St. Louis for college, then went to the University of Minnesota for my JD-PhD program.

My dissertation research combines the behavioral economics theory of discounting with the person-by-situation approach from personality and social psychology more generally to study plea-bargain decision-making. I was lucky to learn about discounting in my very first Experimental Psychology class, at Washington University in St. Louis. In my experience, designing your own experiments always makes abstract concepts more concrete (making them easier to remember). So, five years after that Experimental Psychology class, when I got to the University of Minnesota and learned about plea bargaining, I had a nagging sense that there was a connection between the plea decision process and discounting. Over the next six years I tested what started off as a “sense” and became a series of hypotheses—the beauty of science!

We found that the combination of increased likelihood of losing at trial, pretrial detention, and a delay until trial induced more plea acceptance. From this work it became clear that people are willing to trade away their Constitutional right to a criminal trial (even when they are innocent) for a marginally shorter sentence, some certainty, and an immediate outcome.

What inspired your interest in this topic?

The idea that an innocent person might and—we know from the Innocence Project and other sources—has accepted a guilty plea struck me as (obviously) seriously problematic. How could this be? And are the causes systemic or idiosyncratic? Because if there are systemic causes, maybe they can be fixed.

Any exciting or surprising findings in your research? 

Unsurprisingly, innocents accepted fewer deals on average than those who were guilty. However, the similarity of the groups’ plea decisions was striking and challenges current assumptions that innocents accept guilty pleas only “at the margins.” For example, nearly one third of innocent participants (29%) accepted the plea bargain no matter what deal they were offered (i.e., even a criminal sentence that was just three days less than their trial sentence), and being guilty only increased that percentage 11 points, with 41% of guilty participants accepting the plea every time. At the other end, 12% of guilty participants exercised their trial right every time a plea bargain was offered, but this rate only increased 4% in innocent participants with 16% of them exercising their trial right every time. So being innocent or guilty does not cause categorically distinct responses—many innocent people make similar plea decisions to those who are guilty.

This award recognizes the broader impact of your work. What are the societal implications from your work?

This dissertation project demonstrates that a variety of psychological processes implicated in the plea-bargaining decision-making process—including probability discounting and self-perceptions of guilt and blame—affect both innocent and guilty defendants. Future structural or procedural changes to the plea-bargaining system may be able to encourage more innocent defendants to go to trial rather than accept a false guilty plea. Pretrial detention appears to be a prime candidate: reducing the number of people in pretrial detention will make the (inherently delayed) trial option more appealing.

What’s next? Do you plan to continue your education/research on this subject?

Later this year I am starting a post-doctorate position at Duke Law School’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice. I will be continuing my research on plea bargaining there, expanding to real-world plea-bargaining datasets.