Research and Professional Activities

Core Faculty

Dr. Bornstein and his students apply principles from cognitive and social psychology to real-world contexts, particularly within the legal system. The bulk of this work concerns juror decision making, in both civil and criminal domains, and eyewitness memory. For example, current jury projects address the effect of joinder in civil cases, jurors' treatment of religious defendants, and the role of race in jury deliberations.

Current eyewitness memory projects address the effect of changes in the perpetrator’s appearance due to aging, the effects of arousal on memory, and individual differences in eyewitness performance. Finally, Dr. Bornstein conducts research on trust and justice, especially people's perceptions of what is fair in allocating limited resources and the role of trust in institutions.

The Jury, Justice, and Eyewitness Research Group

Dr. Brank and the students who work with her bring together ideas in the context of family law, juvenile justice, elder law, and Constitutional law. They primarily study the way in which the law intervenes --and sometimes interferes-- in family and individual decision making. That includes issues about raising children (e.g., parental responsibility laws and blaming parents), adult children caring for aging parents, effects of anti-obesity policies, and Constitutionally protected rights within the criminal and juvenile justice systems.

In particular, she has studied the public support, implementation, and effectiveness of parental responsibility laws within the context of the juvenile justice system. Parental responsibility laws and the way they impact juveniles, families, and general culture is critically important for a full understanding of the status of childhood, youth justice, and family law. Dr. Brank's research on parental responsibility laws has included studies on the public opinion, prevalence, media attention, and the history related to these statutes.

Dr. Brank also studies elder law issues with a specific focus on the legal requirements of elder care giving. Not only can parents of youth be held responsible for the behavior of their children, children can be held responsible for the care (or lack of care) they provide for their elderly parents or other adults. Dr. Brank and her students are studying not only adult children's decisions to choose to care for their elderly parents, but also the potential for intentional and unintentional neglect of the elder.

In addition, Dr. Brank and her students are also studying Constitutionally protected rights such as the 4th Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.  The Fourth Amendment protects against intrusions into unreasonable expectations of privacy, but the law is not clear about what makes an expectation reasonable. We are using various social cognitive theories, including embodied cognition, to examine individual's expectations of privacy and willingness to consent to search requests. In related research, we are examining plea negotiations and a defendant’s reasons for entering into a plea bargain. 

Dr. Gervais and her students are most interested in the legal and policy implications of power, dehumanization, and subtle prejudice. In one line of research, Dr. Gervais is examining when subtle forms of sexism, like sexual objectification and patronization, become actionable under the law. Dr. Gervais has shown, for example, that the objectifying gaze undermines performance, but at the same time, leads to increased interaction desires for women.

Extending this work to the law, Dr. Gervais and her colleagues are examining when sexual objectification becomes sufficiently pervasive, severe, and unwelcome to constitute hostile work environment sexual harassment. In another line of research, Dr. Gervais is examining the role of power and subtle prejudice in confronting discrimination. Finally, Dr. Gervais is examining the psychological and legal factors related to alcohol-involved sexual assault.

Dr. Scalora is currently performing research in a variety of areas related to targeted violence and threat assessment. This research continues to involve collaboration with state and federal agencies dealing with threat management and counterterrorism issues. Dr. Scalora also collaborates with local, state, and federal law enforcement on threat assessment research assessing predictive risk factors concerning targeted threatening and violent activity. Concerning sexual offending, he and his colleagues are investigating a range of personality and other risk factors related to sexual recidivism. On a related note concerning targeted violence, his research team is also investigating various risk-related issues (e.g., the nature of mental illness, predictive value of precious threatening behavior) concerning multiple samples of workplace violence.  His teaching activity currently includes courses on forensic assessment, personality assessment, and the psychology of terrorism

Bob Schopp completed the Ph.D. in clinical psychology and practiced clinically for approximately 10 years in a variety of clinical settings that raised a series perplexing legal and ethical questions. He turned to the study of law and philosophy in order to better understand those questions. He completed the J.D. in 1988 and the Ph.D. in philosophy in 1989. His work emphasizes issues that fall at the intersection of law, psychology, and philosophy. These include, for example, questions addressing criminal competence and responsibility, civil competence and commitment, the right to refuse treatment, and the significance of psychological impairment for the just administration of criminal punishment. His books and articles have addressed questions such as these and others within the broad categories of substantive criminal law and mental health law. His work tends to emphasize conceptual and normative analysis with available empirical evidence integrated into that analysis. Recent work in the general category of mental health law addresses outpatient commitment, sexually violent predator statutes, and a book advancing an integrated theory of mental health law. Recent work in the substantive criminal law addresses a variety of issues involving capital punishment, including the most defensible understanding of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment analysis, the integration of empirical data with that analysis, and the relationship between the justification in principle of capital punishment and evidence of various types of distortions in practice.

Dr. Votruba and the Culture, Cognition, and Law (CC&L) Lab leverages social psychological theory and empirical research methodology to help inform legal scholars’ and policymakers’ understanding of how human psychology affects policy and legal judgment and decision-making. More specifically, Dr. Votruba studies factors such as cognitive biases, heuristics, and culturally derived cognitive tendencies and their influence on policy and legal decision-making in the areas of torts, criminal law, and family law.

Current research is examining the effect of culturally derived cognitive tendencies—such as attributional focus, tightness/looseness, and collectivism—on assessments of responsibility and punishment in tort law and criminal law cases. Further, Dr. Votruba is exploring the effects of cognitive biases and culture on negotiation strategies, settlement, and alternative dispute resolution. Dr. Votruba is also involved in a project investigating how innate moral perceptions influence legal judgments of responsibility and culpability in criminal and tort law, and the effects of those assessments on perceptions of plea-bargains and settlements.

Culture, Cognition, and Law Lab

Dr. Wiener and his students are most interested in studying the ways in which deviations from a rational decision making model influences judgments of law. Most centrally, the team is actively collecting data examining the impact of recent U.S. court decisions on the evaluation of allegations of sexual harassment law in the workplace. These data will test some components of a social cognitive model of sexual harassment that Wiener has written about extensively. Recent efforts have extended this work into other areas of possible discrimination including hate speech, bias against the mentally ill, and biases in judicial decision making. The team is also studying jury decision making in death penalty cases, examining the role of jury instruction incomprehensibility in the jury's willingness to invoke the death penalty. In addition, several members of the team are examining the role of emotional appraisal theory in worker reactions to sexual harassment allegations, juror and jury bias against general categories of offenders (e.g., sexual abusers), judges' decisions in abuse and neglect cases, and symbolic hate speech. Dr. Wiener and his team developed a generic prejudice paradigm to study these and other important biases that emerge at trial. As a member of the Coalition for Consumer Bankruptcy Debtor Education, Dr. Wiener studies financial literacy training programs for debtors. Dr Wiener's group is beginning to make use of internet research. One study looks at the influence of drug courier profiles on case evaluations and a new study will test the role of experienced and anticipated emotion in limiting the efficacy of proposed credit disclosure laws among bankruptcy filers.

The Legal Decision Making Lab

In the Psychology of Race and Ethnicity Lab, Dr. Willis Esqueda and students are focused on how the law defines race and ethnicity and the impact of discrimination within the legal system. In the broadest sense, the research focuses on biased legal decision making and outcomes concerning minorities and how such decisions are connected to historical and current legal and societal notions about race and ethnicity. In one program of research, Dr. Willis Esqueda has examined biased legal outcomes for Latinos when socioeconomic status (SES) and immigration status (IMS) are considered. In a series of studies, Dr. Willis Esqueda and her students have shown that, due to Whites’ stereotypes about Latinos and aversive racism, biases exist in culpability assignment for Latinos, especially for those who are of low SES, compared to Whites or Latinos of high SES. Latino samples have not shown such biases against Latino or White defendants. A Latino defendant’s IMS, but not White’s IMS, is also implicated in the perception of unjust police stops for minor infractions. In another area of research, we examine how ideological orientations (colonial mentality, conservatism, patriotism) drive immigration law and policy preferences and the acceptability of immigrant child labor in the United States.

Center on Children, Families, and the Law (CCFL)

Director, Eve Brank

The Center on Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was established in 1987 as a home for interdisciplinary research, teaching and public service on issues related to child and family policy and services. The mission of the Center on Children, Families and the Law is to educate, conduct research, analyze policy, and provide community services related to children, families and legal policy issues. The data on child and family issues generated by the Center are widely distributed to educate policy makers, scholars, service providers and the public. Work done by the Center has served as the primary basis for new local, state and national legislation, and has been cited in court rulings, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Center on Children, Families and the Law holds a strong commitment to the people of Nebraska. Center faculty work closely with state and local agencies, the Governor's Office on Child and Family Policy, the legislature, and nonprofit organizations to promote child and family welfare through training and educational programs, legal and policy analyses, consultation with service providers, and research intended to address practical child and family welfare issues.

The Public Policy Center (PPC)

Director, Mario Scalora

The PPC seeks to inform public policy by facilitating, developing, and making available objective research and analysis on issues important to Nebraskans. The PPC is a link between the University of Nebraska's public policy resources and elected and appointed officials; state and local agency staff; the public at large; and others who represent the diverse policy interests of Nebraskans. Drawing on faculty, staff, and student expertise from throughout the University of Nebraska system, the PPC facilitates, coordinates, and supports public policy research, and undertakes collaborative projects to benefit Nebraska. The PPC brings a proactive focus to identification and research on emerging policy issues and establishing networks among researchers, educators, and policymakers.

The PPC's primary focus centers around longer-term analytic studies that address new or ongoing public policy issues of importance to Nebraskans. Topics are suggested by policymakers and administrators from the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of government, as well as by faculty, students, and staff from the University. The entities with which the PPC works closely include the Nebraska Legislative Research Office, the Executive Board of the Legislature, the Governor's Policy Research and Energy Office, and the State Court Administrator's Office. The PPC also works with other recognized groups in Nebraska that have an interest in public policy.