"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015

RETURN TO THE WORLD SCIENCE HOME PAGE


Appeals to sympathy lead many battered wives to drop accusations, study finds

Aug. 15, 2011
Courtesy of Ohio State University
and World Science staff

Re­search­ers have used taped jail­house phone con­versa­t­ions in a study that they say re­veals why many bat­tered wives and girl­friends drop crim­i­nal ac­cus­a­tions against their abus­ers.

A vic­tim typ­ic­ally clams up not be­cause the abus­er thre­at­ens her—as vic­tim ad­vo­cates usu­ally as­sume—but be­cause he sys­tem­at­ic­ally gains her sym­pa­thy, the study sug­gests. This pro­cess can typ­ic­ally be bro­ken down in­to five steps, re­search­ers say, a find­ing that might be used to pre­pare vic­tims for a pos­si­ble ma­nipula­t­ion.

Re­canta­t­ions by do­mes­tic vi­o­lence vic­tims pose a per­sist­ent prob­lem for the jus­tice sys­tem, many pros­e­cu­tors com­plain, mak­ing it harder to lock up peo­ple who pose a threat to so­ci­e­ty. In the stu­dy, re­search­ers lis­tened to le­gally taped con­versa­t­ions be­tween 17 ac­cused male abus­ers in a Wash­ing­ton state de­ten­tion facil­ity and their female vic­tims, all of whom even­tu­ally with­drew their ac­cusa­t­ions.

“The ex­ist­ing be­lief is that vic­tims re­cant be­cause the per­pe­tra­tor threat­ens her with more vi­o­lence. But our re­sults sug­gest some­thing very dif­fer­en­t,” said Amy Bonomi of Ohio State Uni­vers­ity, lead au­thor of the stu­dy, which ap­pears in the ad­vance on­line is­sue of the jour­nal So­cial Sci­ence & Med­i­cine. In­stead, she said, per­pe­tra­tors use “more soph­is­t­icated emo­tion­al ap­peals de­signed to min­i­mize their ac­tions and gain” sym­pa­thy.

The jail in the study rou­tinely records de­tainees’ con­versa­t­ions due to safe­ty con­cerns. The cou­ples knew they were be­ing recorded thanks to au­to­mat­ed mes­sages at the be­gin­ning of each call. Such record­ings have been ap­proved by the state Su­preme Court; the re­search­ers gained ap­prov­al from the coun­ty pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice to use them. All the record­ings in­volved cases that had al­ready been re­solved.

The re­search­ers lis­tened to from 30 to 192 min­utes of recorded con­versa­t­ions for each cou­ple. They iden­ti­fied a five-step pro­cess that went from the vic­tims vig­or­ously stand­ing up for them­selves, to agree­ing to a plan to take back their tes­ti­mo­ny.

Typ­ic­ally, the first and sec­ond con­versa­t­ions in­volve a heat­ed ar­gu­ment about the event lead­ing to the abuse charge, the re­search­ers said. The vic­tim at this stage sticks up strongly for her­self. “But grad­u­ally that erodes as the phone calls con­tin­ue,” said Bonomi, who is al­so an af­fil­i­ate with the Group Health Re­search In­sti­tute in Se­at­tle.

In the sec­ond stage, the per­pe­tra­tor min­i­mizes the abuse and tries to con­vince the vic­tim that what hap­pened was­n’t that se­ri­ous. In one cou­ple, where the vic­tim suf­fered stran­gula­t­ion and a se­vere bite to the face, the ac­cused per­pe­tra­tor re­peat­edly re­minded the vic­tim that he was be­ing charged with “fel­o­ny as­sault,” while ask­ing wheth­er she thought he de­served the fel­o­ny charge.

“Final­ly, he wore her down and she agreed with him that he did­n’t de­serve a fel­o­ny charge,” Bonomi said.

What hap­pens next in this sec­ond stage is crit­i­cal, she went on. “The tip­ping point for most vic­tims oc­curs when the per­pe­tra­tor ap­peals to her sym­pa­thy, by de­scrib­ing how much he is suf­fer­ing in jail, how de­pressed he is, and how much he miss­es her and their chil­dren,” Bonomi said. “The per­pe­tra­tor casts him­self as the vic­tim, and quite of­ten the real vic­tim re­sponds by try­ing to soothe and com­fort the abus­er.”

In one case, an ac­cused per­pe­tra­tor threat­ened su­i­cide and said in a phone call, “No­body loves me though, right?,” Bonomi said; the vic­tim’s tone then changed dra­mat­ic­ally, and she sounded con­cerned that he might really try to hurt him­self. From then on, she prom­ised to help him get out of jail.

In the third stage, the ac­cused hav­ing won sym­pa­thy, the cou­ple bond over their love and set them­selves in op­po­si­tion to out­siders, who “don’t un­der­stand them.” The fourth stage in­volves the per­pe­tra­tor ask­ing the vic­tim to re­cant her ac­cusa­t­ions and the vic­tim com­ply­ing. Final­ly, in the fifth stage, the cou­ple con­structs the re­canta­t­ion plan and de­vel­ops their sto­ries.

“They of­ten ex­change very spe­cif­ic in­struc­tions about what should be done and said in court. They seal their bond as a cou­ple and see them­selves as fight­ing to­geth­er against the state, which they view as try­ing to keep them apart,” Bonomi said.

While the cou­ples were told that the phone calls were be­ing recorded, Bonomi said she does­n’t think it had a ma­jor ef­fect on what they talked about. “These are cou­ples in cri­sis and the per­pe­tra­tor wants above all to get his free­dom. He is­n’t hold­ing back,” she said.

Bonomi said she al­so does­n’t be­lieve the fact that the calls were recorded is what kept the ac­cused per­pe­tra­tors from threat­en­ing vi­o­lence. In­stead, she thinks the men cal­cu­lat­ed they had a bet­ter chance of suc­ceed­ing with­out di­rect threats. If the ac­cused threat­ens his girl­friend or wife, she may hang up or ref­use to talk to him. Of course, the threat of fu­ture vi­o­lence is al­ways there, Bonomi said.

“These re­sults pro­vide a new mod­el for how to work with vic­tims. Ad­vo­cates can coun­sel vic­tims up front and let them know the sym­pa­thy ap­peals and min­im­iz­a­tion tech­niques that their hus­band or boy­friend is likely to use on them,” Bonomi said. “If the vic­tims are pre­pared, they may be less likely to fall for these tech­niques.” The re­sults al­so show how abus­ers’ emotion-based tech­niques may make it hard for some vic­tims to dis­en­tan­gle them­selves from vi­o­lent rela­t­ion­ships, she added.


* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend









 

Sign up for
e-newsletter
   
 
subscribe
 
cancel

On Home Page         

LATEST

  • St­ar found to have lit­tle plan­ets over twice as old as our own

  • “Kind­ness curricu­lum” may bo­ost suc­cess in pre­schoolers

EXCLUSIVES

  • Smart­er mice with a “hum­anized” gene?

  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?

MORE NEWS

  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

Researchers have used taped jailhouse phone conversations in a study that they say reveals why many battered wives and girlfriends drop criminal chages against their abusers. A victim typically recants accusations not because the abuser theatens her—as victim advocates usually assume—but because he systematically gains her sympathy, the study suggests. This process can typically be broken down into five steps, researchers say, a finding that might be used to prepare victims for a possible manipulation. Recantations by domestic violence victims pose a persistent problem for the justice system, many prosecutors complain, making it harder to lock up people who pose a threat to society. In the study, researchers listened to legally taped conversations between 17 accused male abusers in a Washington state detention facility and their female victims, all of whom eventually withdrew their accusations. “The existing belief is that victims recant because the perpetrator threatens her with more violence. But our results suggest something very different,” said Amy Bonomi of Ohio State University, lead author of the study, which appears in the advance online issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine. Instead, she said, perpetrators use “more sophisticated emotional appeals designed to minimize their actions and gain” sympathy. The jail in the study routinely records detainees’ conversations due to safety concerns. The couples knew they were being recorded thanks to automated messages at the beginning of each call. Such recordings have been approved by the state Supreme Court; the researchers gained approval from the county prosecutor’s office to use them. All the recordings involved cases that had already been resolved. The researchers listened to from 30 to 192 minutes of recorded conversations for each couple. They identified a five-step process that went from the victims vigorously standing up for themselves, to agreeing to a plan to take back their testimony. Typically, the first and second conversations involve a heated argument about the event leading to the abuse charge, the researchers said. The victim at this stage sticks up strongly for herself. “But gradually that erodes as the phone calls continue,” said Bonomi, who is also an affiliate with the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle. In the second stage, the perpetrator minimizes the abuse and tries to convince the victim that what happened wasn’t that serious. In one couple, where the victim suffered strangulation and a severe bite to the face, the accused perpetrator repeatedly reminded the victim that he was being charged with “felony assault,” while asking whether she thought he deserved the felony charge. “Finally, he wore her down and she agreed with him that he didn’t deserve a felony charge,” Bonomi said. What happens next in this second stage is critical, she went on. “The tipping point for most victims occurs when the perpetrator appeals to her sympathy, by describing how much he is suffering in jail, how depressed he is, and how much he misses her and their children,” Bonomi said. “The perpetrator casts himself as the victim, and quite often the real victim responds by trying to soothe and comfort the abuser.” In one case, an accused perpetrator threatened suicide and said in a phone call, “Nobody loves me though, right?,” Bonomi said; the victim’s tone then changed dramatically, and she sounded concerned that he might really try to hurt himself. From then on, she promised to help him get out of jail. In the third stage, the accused having won sympathy, the couple bond over their love and set themselves in opposition to outsiders, who “don’t understand them.” The fourth stage involves the perpetrator asking the victim to recant her accusations and the victim complying. Finally, in the fifth stage, the couple constructs the recantation plan and develops their stories. “They often exchange very specific instructions about what should be done and said in court. They seal their bond as a couple and see themselves as fighting together against the state, which they view as trying to keep them apart,” Bonomi said. While the couples were told that the phone calls were being recorded, Bonomi said she doesn’t think it had a major effect on what they talked about. “These are couples in crisis and the perpetrator wants above all to get his freedom. He isn’t holding back,” she said. Bonomi said she also doesn’t believe the fact that the calls were recorded is what kept the accused perpetrators from threatening violence. Instead, she thinks the men calculated they had a better chance of succeeding without direct threats. If the accused threatens his girlfriend or wife, she may hang up or refuse to talk to him. Of course, the threat of future violence is always there, Bonomi said. “These results provide a new model for how to work with victims. Advocates can counsel victims up front and let them know the sympathy appeals and minimization techniques that their husband or boyfriend is likely to use on them,” Bonomi said. “If the victims are prepared, they may be less likely to fall for these techniques.” The results also show how abusers’ emotion-based techniques may make it hard for some victims to disentangle themselves from violent relationships, she added.