The Death of Jane Doe: Psychological research meets immersive theatre

On Friday night, I walked up the steps of Deptford Town Hall with a sense of trepidation: there had been a murder and I was there to investigate my very first case as a trainee cop. A young woman had been strangled, stabbed, and left for dead at her workplace. It was down to me to solve the crime and catch her killer.

I wasn’t working alone: there were 59 other cops on the case, as well as senior detectives, crime scene investigators, members of the press and Goldsmiths Forensic Psychology Unit. Thankfully, no-one had *really* died — we were all there to take part in a psychology experiment / murder mystery evening. As you do.

As a first-year student on a psychology conversion course, I’ve had to take part in lots of experiments as a course requirement. I was keen to do it regardless of the incentive — what a great way to see psychological science in action! Except… my enthusiasm died pretty quickly after I had taken part in a few studies. Being a guinea pig becomes REALLY BLOODY BORING when all you are asked to do is push buttons in response to coloured blocks on a screen, or to fill out identical questionnaires 20 times. Gathering reaction-time data in a cubicle from bored 20-something psychology students: is this REALLY the cutting edge of psychology?

So when one of our guest lecturers told us that his department was putting on an event that mixed forensic psychology research with a murder mystery evening, I was sold. I was sold even before he mentioned that they’d be serving wine. With Goldsmiths being particularly known for its artistic leanings, the Forensic Psychology Unit brought in actors and artists to bring a crime scene to life in Deptford, complete with a bloodied corpse.

On arrival, we were sorted into different forces and were sat down to receive a full briefing from detectives, including CCTV stills of persons of interest and an appeal for information from the victim’s family. After we asked some initial questions, we were set loose on the crime scene and were able to talk to witnesses and examine evidence — including the actor playing the victim, who stayed remarkably still throughout the whole thing. A second briefing introduced video footage, new persons of interest, and new evidence. We were given three opportunities to judge who had done it — was it the friend in the area, the security guard who found the victim, a member of her family, a boyfriend or a random person?

When it comes to solving mysteries on TV, I have a high success rate. Having an English degree equips you with the skills to see where a story is going. In real life, with no obvious cues, solving a case is much harder. You’re not sure what’s relevant; you second-guess yourself for making assumptions based on what you’ve read in books. The case that the team at Goldsmiths had presented for us was a genuine one from The Innocence Project, where a member of the public had been wrongfully convicted, which made it clear that in real life, dodgy investigating has serious consequences.

It’s a good job that this was just for fun, because I wasn’t as good at solving crimes that aren’t fictional. We were asked at three different points during the event to say who we thought had killed the victim. My first guess turned out to be correct (the victim’s cousin), but I changed my mind later due to the fact I didn’t find any evidence to back up my initial hunch. I will stick to my day job for now…

The final debrief from the Goldsmiths team revealed the research questions they had posed: would describing some of the suspects as mentally ill make us more likely to judge them as the killer? Secondly, would our recall for events be improved if we were told to seek personally relevant cues? And would the stage at which suspects were introduced to us make us more or less likely to judge them as the killer?

The ‘immersive-theatre-meets-psychological-research’ approach wasn’t just a fun evening out — it showed me that there is a role for creativity in psychological research. It can get a wider range of people taking part in your research, meaning that you’re not just taking results from psychology students, who are not representative of humanity in general. By putting people in situations outside of a cubicle, your findings may better reflect how people would act in ‘real life’. And, let’s face it: a creatively run study is just a lot more fun than filling out the Penn State Worry Questionnaire for the 78th time. If your participants are interested in your task, you get to see them as they are: not mindlessly ticking boxes or pushing buttons in return for course credits.

Thank you Goldsmiths Forensic Psychology Unit for a giving me a fresh perspective on research. And for the wine.

Originally published at