The importance of looking credible: the impact of the behavioural sequelae of post-traumatic stress disorder on the credibility of asylum seekers

This study demonstrates the impact of how a claimant presents his or her story on the assessment of credibility.

Rogers, H., Fox, S. & Herlihy, J. (2015). The importance of looking credible: the impact of the behavioural sequelae of post-traumatic stress disorder on the credibility of asylum seekers. Psychology, Crime & Law 21(2) 139-155 DOI: 10.1080/1068316X.2014.951643

Behaviours such as averting one's gaze, fidgeting, and hesitant speech are commonly interpreted as signs of dishonesty, yet they are also symptoms of PTSD. In this paper, Rogers, Fox and Herlihy explore the effects of this overlap on credibility assessment in the asylum process.

An actor performed four versions of a fictional ‘asylum interview’ that contained differing levels of pre-defined ‘deception’ and ‘trauma’ behaviours. Four groups of students (total n = 118) each watched a different interview. They gave subjective ratings of credibility, plus quantitative and qualitative information about the factors that influenced their judgements. Despite the content of the interviews remaining the same, significant differences in credibility ratings were found between interviews; with the interview containing both ‘trauma’ and ‘deception’ behaviours being rated as significantly less credible than the interview containing only the PTSD behaviours.

The "decision makers"' qualitative responses suggested that ‘emotional congruence’ may be an important factor in influencing credibility in asylum cases, just as it has been demonstrated in rape trials(1). This raises questions about the fair treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers whose presentation does not conform to commonly understood presentation of distress. (See also Non-clinicians’ judgments about asylum seekers’ mental health: How do legal representatives of asylum seekers decide when to request medico-legal reports? by Wilson-Shaw, Fox & Herlihy, 2012).

The finding that the PTSD and deception condition was deemed the least credible has important implications for traumatised people who have been coerced to lie about aspects of their claim (e.g. when trafficked), or for other reasons are lying in the context of a genuine claim.

(1)Kaufmann, G., Drevland, G. C. B., Wessel, E., Overskeid, G., & Magnussen, S. (2003). The importance of being earnest: Displayed emotions and witness credibility. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 17(1) 21–34. doi:10.1002/acp.842

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