July 1, 2015, by Emma Thorne

How people misunderstand stalking

Members of the public have a fixed and faulty view of what stalkers look like, and this has potential implications for victims and court proceedings.

That is the finding of research presented by the University’s Dr Simon Duff to the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Forensic Psychology in Manchester on Wednesday July 1.

His research was conducted in collaboration with Dr Mark Coulson from Middlesex University and Dr Rebecca Gould at King’s College London

Dr Duff’s previous research on stalking has found that people tend to expect stalkers to be strangers rather than acquaintances or ex-partners. In reality, ex-partners are likely to be the more persistent and dangerous stalkers.

Building on his previous research, Dr Duff and colleagues examined, in a pilot study with 54 participants, how the faces of strangers, acquaintances and ex-partners that were seen as threatening or non-threatening influenced perceptions on stalking behaviour.

Stalking is unusual in that it includes behaviours that in other contexts could be considered routine and welcomed, for example during normal courtship and other relationships. It is difficult to determine if stalking is occurring, how risky that behaviour might be and what an appropriate response from the legal system to stalking allegations should be.

The researchers found from the new study that non-threatening faces were more likely to be rated as stalkers when they were strangers or acquaintances rather than ex-partners. All of the threatening faces were likely to be perceived as stalkers, regardless of the relationship status.

Dr Duff says: “Although this is just one element of a stalking experience, the results demonstrate that people’s perceptions of potential stalkers are biased. As a result, we may be less risk aware when the potential perpetrator does not, facially, seem to pose a direct threat.”

Dr Duff added that the implication of this for a potential victim is that they may “be less concerned with and less likely to notice when there is escalation and so be unlikely to respond to increasing threat.”

The researchers raise a potential implication for court proceedings: “if an ex-partner is able to appear non-threatening in court, will they be less likely to be convicted?” Further research will examine the impact of facial expression on jury decision making.

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