The Effect of Culture on Psychological Assessment and the Legal System

Updated on August 11, 2019
Mea Hera profile image

Mea is a final year medical student with a diploma in psychology and a certificate in Gene Technology.

Psychological assessment of individuals for various purposes requires carefully constructed tests which guarantee maximum validity and reliability. Tests should be modified or discarded if they are found to inflict bias upon certain individuals. Bias is the presence of systematic error in measuring certain factors among certain individuals or groups. [1] The individuals subjected to bias can vary in age, gender, ethnicity, etc.

In most cases, it is the minorities that are subjected to bias, since most evaluation tools have been designed based on the research data obtained from cohorts which largely consist of individuals representing the majority. Therefore they reflect the values of the majority. This issue has become a controversial subject in the case of ethnicity, because researchers believe that many tests are heavily biased in favour of the European American, middle class society. [1] They might yield inaccurate results if applied to the minorities. However it is important to note that the individuals of a majority ethnic group can also be the victims of bias. This may occur if the evaluator and the person being evaluated are of different ethnicities.

The effect of culture can lead an individual to exaggerate or deny certain factors in their lives without the motive to deceive. [2]Therefore it is important to develop cultural sensitivity to prevent incorrect diagnoses based on such incidents. The American Psychological Association has released guidelines on multiculturalism, training, research and practice for psychologists in order to ensure positive outcomes for all individuals in the society. Since its release, there has been an increase in research and theories regarding multiculturalism in psychology.

The same standardized tests can give false results when adminstered to different populations.
The same standardized tests can give false results when adminstered to different populations.

According to the cultural test bias hypothesis, the deficits seen in the mean scores of minorities in various mental tests are not due to inability, but rather due to the design, administration and interpretation of these tests. [3] This can include the usage of content which cannot be comprehended by the minorities. The usage of certain words, idioms, proverbs, pop culture articles may confuse those who are not familiar with such information. A foreigner who is fluent in English may not know the meaning of certain unique British or American terms.
Presence of inappropriate standardization samples is another reason for bias. Minorities are overwhelmingly underrepresented in the standardization samples used for most tests. For an example, comparing a Hispanic individual’s score with the mean values of a largely White, middle class population may not give the most accurate results.

As evident from extensive cross cultural research, different ethnicities have varying personality traits that are brought about by the influence of their respective societies. These can be inaccurately over-pathologized due to flawed evaluation tools.

Existence of language bias can also cause inaccurate results. An examiner, who does not speak Chinese cannot be expected to communicate efficiently with a Chinese examinee nor build a good rapport with him if he is unable to understand English. The examinee might feel stressed because he/she cannot understand the context of the test. This can lead to inaccurate results both due to the lack of understanding and due to emotional depletion. Enhanced rapport with older children has shown to increase WISC-R scores (Wechsler intelligence scale for children) by an average of 13 points, when compared to the scores done under neutral conditions. [1] One can assume that the language bias can be removed by translating the psychological tests to the relevant native language. However this is not the case as there could be errors in translation and in understanding. As an example, it was found in a study that Koreans have a different understanding about the concept of double negatives in comparison to a native born American, which can lead to alterations in the scoring system. [4]

Individuals of various cultures differ in personality and aptitude. The MMPI (Minnesota multiphasic personality inventory) test is widely used in Psychological evaluations. This test has been reviewed and re-standardized several times to adjust to new norms. Extensive research has been conducted to assess the bias on minorities with the use of MMPI.

In a study it was found that incarcerated African Americans tend to score higher on the scales of F (infrequency), 8 (schizophrenia) and 9 (hypomania) of the MMPI in comparison to their Caucasian counterparts. [5] Researchers have not provided a solid explanation as to why these scores differ in the two races. Gynther suggests said that these changes reflect the difference in values and perceptions between the African Americans and the Caucasians, which ultimately results in the “distrust of the white society”. [6] The African Americans may feel persecuted and alienated due to the manner in which the whites have treated them in the past. Continuous racism faced by these individuals may further aggravate these ideas. If this is the case, it may provide an explanation for the high scores in scale 8 (schizophrenia), which corresponds to odd thinking and social alienation and scale 9 (hypomania), which corresponds to unstable mood, irritability, etc. In several studies it was noted that Asian Americans consistently scored higher on scale 0 which denotes social introversion. [7] This is consistent with their personalities which reflect the general social values of Asian societies. Another study comparing Romanian police office applicants with American applicants has revealed that the former had personality differences including introversion, which were not exhibited in the latter. [8] These differences have been attributed to society, culture, age and experience.

Reading Between the Lines

As evident from extensive cross cultural research, different ethnicities have varying personality traits that are brought about by the influence of their respective societies. These can be inaccurately over-pathologized due to flawed evaluation tools. However, a faulty evaluation tool is not the sole culprit in inaccurate diagnosis. The innate beliefs held by the evaluator about other cultures can play a significant role in the creation of biased documents. Dixon and Rosenbaum found that a sample of American white individuals believed that African Americans and Hispanics were less intelligent, lazier, and were less committed to their families than the whites. [9] Stereotypic beliefs about other races exist in all people. It is important to be aware of such thinking and prevent them from influencing clinical and legal decisions.

A part of a psychiatrist/psychologist’s duty is to evaluate the competency of an individual to stand trial as well as to arrange a proper plan of treatment if found incompetent. This is determined by interviews, mental state examinations and formal tests. Numerous studies have been conducted on the prevalence of racial disparities in the diagnosis of mental competency. It was found that Black patients were consistently diagnosed with psychotic disorders more than white patients. [10], [11]. As mentioned before, this may be due to faulty evaluation tools and personal biases of the evaluator. Whatever the case maybe, an inaccurate diagnosis can lead to erroneous treatment plans which will not provide any benefit to the diagnosed individual. Therefore it is the duty of the examiner to produce accurate clinical or legal documents only after considering the denominators that can interfere with such evaluations.

Selection of a diverse jury can aid in unbiased legal action, as the various ethnicities can provide valuable input on many important issues which may not be properly understood by those who are not a part of a certain culture.

The Controversy of Culture as a Defense

The problems arising during cross cultural testing are not just limited to evaluation. The outcome of important events such as court proceedings may also be altered due to incompatibilities in cultures. For an example, a Caucasian lawyer working with a Native American client who wants custody of her children in a divorce case against her husband, who decided to separate due to her strong cultural beliefs, will need to conduct extensive research on the Native American beliefs which can conflict with American norms in the judicial family law system. [12] The lawyer will have to provide a cultural perspective on the issue to the court, so that that the judge and jury will have a proper understanding before coming to a fair conclusion. There are many such examples where cultural differences have interfered with court proceedings. This has given rise to the controversial “cultural defense”, which is implemented in some counties with large immigrant populations.

In the case of R v. Dincer, (1983) I V.R. 461, the Australian court reduced the sentence of a Turkish Muslim man from murder to manslaughter. He had killed his daughter after finding out about her pre-marital affairs. Although it is not normal in many societies, it was considered as a normal “honor killing” in his culture. [13]

In people v. Kimura, a Japanese mother was charged with the murder of her two children. She attempted to commit suicide and drown her children after finding out about her husband’s infidelity. The children died while she survived. She did it to rid herself and her children of the shame and humiliation of divorce. It was a much greater crime to commit suicide and abandon a child without a mother according to the Japanese culture. Therefore a plea bargain was reached to reduce her sentence to only 1 year in prison and 5 years of probation. [14] These are some instances where culture and ethnicity have been considered during sentencing.
Culture is an important entity to be considered in all aspects of the legal system. Selection of a diverse jury can aid in unbiased legal action, as the various ethnicities can provide valuable input on many important issues which may not be properly understood by those who are not a part of a certain culture. During an experiment, it was found that a diverse jury was more through in their evaluation of evidence than a homogenous one. [15] The diverse juries were also more likely to openly discuss matters about race.

A Japanese mother drowned her children in order to save them from the shame of her divorce.
A Japanese mother drowned her children in order to save them from the shame of her divorce.

A factor that might hinder the provision of justice to individuals is the lack of fluency in the language used during legal proceedings. These individuals may not be provided with the fee to hire translators or mediators to aid in such matters. Therefore due to financial burden, they will have to stand in trial with minimum knowledge and resources. The role of the interpreter becomes vital in such cases. However it is important to understand that the interpreter must not be asked to overstep his/her role. It is unjust to ask the interpreter to offer professional insight in to the individual being examined. For an example, a Somali interpreter aiding a psychiatric patient in Norway was asked after the evaluation session, whether the patient is ‘mad’ according to his opinion. [16] This is not a question that can be answered by the interpreter as he is not qualified in the matter. Therefore the role of each party in the legal system must be clearly understood in order to advance efficiently. It is important to train legal practitioners on cultural issues and formulate policies to enforce effective cross cultural communication in courts. Keeping in touch with the latest research is beneficial in formulating such policies and also aid in evidence based decision making.


[1] Groth-Marnat, G. (2003). The Handbook of psychological Assessment (4th edition). New Jersey, John Wiley & sons, Inc.

[2] Bush, S, Ruff, R.M, Troster, A.I, Barth, J.T, Koffler, S.P, Pliskin, N.H, Reynolds, C.R, Silver, C.H. (2005) Symptom Validity assessment: Practice issues and medical necessity: NAN policy & planning Committee. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology. 20(4). 419-426

[3] Brown, R.T, Reynolds, C.R.,& Whitaker, J. S. (1999). Bias in mental testing since “Bias in Mental testing”. School Psychology Quarterly, 14(3), 208-238.

[4] Gorman, I. Ethical principles in Forensic Assessment by Ira Gorman.
Retrieved from

[5] Holland, T.R, (1979), Ethnic group differences in MMPI profile patterns and factorial structures among adult offenders. Journal of Personality Assessment. 43(1), 72-77.

[6] Gynther, M.D. (1972). White norms and black MMPIs: A prescription for discrimination. Psychological bulletin, 78(5), 386-402.

[7] Graham, J.R. (2006) MMPI-2: Assessing personality and psychopathology (4th edition). New York, NY: Oxford University press.

[8] Blajer, M., Kucia, K., Klasik, A., & Mac-Blajer, H. (2003). Personality characteristics of police candidates [polish]. Psychiatria Polska, 37(2), 259-268.

[9] Dixon, J.C., & Rosenbaum, M.S. (2004). Nice to know you? Testing contact, cultural, and group threat theories of anti-Black and anti-Hispanic stereotypes [Electronic Version]. Social Science Quarterly, 85(2), 257-280

[10] Coid, J.W., Khatan, N., Gault, S.,& Jarman, B. (2000). Ethnic differences in admissions to secure forensic psychiatry services. British Journal of psychiatry, 177, 241-247

[11]Kales, H.C., Blow, F.C., Bingham, C.R., Copeland, L.A., & Mellow, A.M. (2000). Race and inpatient psychiatric diagnoses among elderly veterans. Psychiatric services, 51(6), 795-800

[12] Haworth, H.K. (2005). Making the cross cultural case: Educating the judge about race, religion and ethnicity. Family advocate. 27(2). 25-30.

[13]Hallevy, G. Culture based crimes against women in societies absorbing immigrants- rejecting the “mistake of law’ defense and imposing harsher sentencing. (2010). 16 Cardozo journal of law & Gender. 443

[14] Malek-Mithra Sheybani, cultural defense: one person’s culture is another’s crime, 9 Loy. L.A. Int’l & Comp.L.Rev.751 (1987).
Retrieved from:

[15] Felberg, T., & Skaaden, H. (2012). The (de)construction of culture in interpreter-mediated medical discourse. Linguistica Antverpiensia, 11, 95-112.

[16] Sommers, S.R. (2006). On racial diversity and group decision making: Identifying multiple effects of racial composition on jury deliberations. Journal of Personlaity and social Psychology, 90(4), 597.


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      13 months ago

      Interesting compilation of facts. We should have better systems to evaluate people. The relevant authorities must act fast to rectify this. The cultural defense has no place in modern society!


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