Cross-cultural cases in courts: the need of a multidiscipinary approach to the assessment of behaviors.

Countries in Europe and in the whole world are facing the problem to manage immigration. This is an issue  for countries with advanced democracy and industrial development, as there is a consistent pressure to open the borders to new human resources necessary for economy. However at the same time there are also a number of legal, political and security concerns as people need to be provided of clear rules concerning the regulation of immigration flow. Nowadays, in fact, immigration flow to industrial cities has increased significantly and sometimes very distant and different cultures and lifestyles have to interact after a short delay with no time to fully understand reciprocally the cultural framework underlying the behavior of individuals. As a result, society has to deal with different languages, traditions and behaviors suddenly coexisting in the same environment.

The consequence of this confrontation can be the social isolation of immigrants and the augmented risk of illegal behaviors, and this issue might influence the way in which justice is conducted.

Legal trials increasingly involve citizens who have not necessarily grown up in the local culture or followed the same rules as native residents since their childhood. These new social and cultural determinants make trials more and more complex, and require an interdisciplinary approach. This is one of the main reasons why, over the past few years, neuroscience and law started a promising partnership, which is now a recognized field of study (Goodenough and Tucker, 2010). Indeed, neuroscientific evidence in the courtroom offers reliable support in establishing the responsibility, free will and moral judgment of the defendant (Jones et al., 2013). And, when law calls for neuroscience in the courtroom, cross-cultural cases raise some ethical and practical concerns (Brickman et al., 2006). Mainly, these issues are related to the strong impact of culture on human behavior and social interaction, and to the absence of clear guidelines to follow when a neuroscientist is required to undertake a foreign defendant’s profile assessment. Even if from a neuorscientific point of view behaviors are the results of decision making processes that are biologically driven by specific neural networks, the phenomenology of the behavior – so the content and result of the decision making process – can be deeply influenced by cultural and enviromental framework (Phelps et al, 2014)

In this view, the involvement of a multidisciplinary team could be essential to more suitable assessments. One of the fundamental rules to follow when neuroscience is required to provide a profile of a defendant, is to apply a rigorous methodological approach, also involving the administration of tests. Dependently on the question posed by Law to Neuroscience, behavioral, neuropsychological, sometimes instrumental tests and exams can be adopted. It is thus intuitive that, this requires multidisciplinary activities with different expertise, all involved in a team including experts belonging to both clinical and research practice. Hence, the “neuro-in-law” equip (Salvato et al., 2014) could involve at least a neuropsychologist, neuroscientist, neuroimaging expert, neurologist, psychiatrist, anthropologist as well as a translator to allow for a clear interpretation of the defendant’s profile. The all cited research and clinical dominions adopt different instruments, use diverse methodological techniques and communicate with a very specific language. However Law makes very clear questions and requires equally clear global responses in order to make decisions on defendants. Such a delicate circumstance imposes that the different experts do not provide multiple profiles limited to their own competence rather then should make an effort to shed light on common and diverse identified aspects with the final result of a coherent and if possible exhaustive conclusion in order to be of some help for the Law practitioners.

Gerardo Salvato (1, 2), Daniela Ovadia (2) and Gabriella Bottini (1, 2)
1) Cognitive, Clinic and Forensic Neuropsychology Lab
2) Neuroscience and Society Lab
Department of Brain and Behavioural Sciences
University of Pavia


  • Brickman, A. M., Cabo, R., and Manly, J. J. (2006). Ethical issues in cross-cultural neuropsychology. Neuropsichol. 13, 91–100.
  • Goodenough, O. R., and Tucker, M. (2010). Law and cognitive neuroscience. Rev. Law Soc. Sci. 6, 61–92.
  • Jones, O. D., Wagner, A. D., Faigman, D. L., and Raichle, M. E. (2013). Neuroscientists in court. Rev. Neurosci. 14, 730–736. doi: 10.1038/nrn3585
  • Phelps, E.A. et al. (2014) Emotion and Decision Making: multiple modulatory neural circuits. Ann Rev of Neurosci. 37: 263-287.
  • Salvato, G., Dings, R., & Reuter, L. (2014). Culture, neuroscience, and law.Frontiers in psychology,5.

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