When Hurt Heroes Do Harm: Collective Guilt and Leniency toward War-Veteran Defendants with PTSD

Alexander C.V. Jay, Jessica Salerno, Robert C. Ross

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are at heightened risk for interfacing with the United States legal system as criminal defendants. Two experiments were used to test the hypothesis that American mock jurors would punish a veteran (vs. a civilian) with PTSD for a violent crime less harshly because of their own collective guilt (i.e., the guilt felt for the transgressions of one's in-group) about the veteran's suffering due to war. The participants were United States citizens recruited online (n = 174) who completed a mock-juror experiment involving a violent assault committed by either a veteran or a civilian with PTSD. As predicted, jurors were more lenient toward the veteran (vs. the civilian). For male mock jurors this was explained by their collective guilt for the veteran's war-related suffering. A second study experimentally induced individual and collective guilt about veteran defendants, finding that mock jurors (n = 533) who are less likely to share a salient in-group identity with the veteran (i.e., women, people with lower national identification with the United States) can be induced to feel the requisite guilt to exhibit leniency toward a veteran. Thus, veterans suffering from PTSD may receive more lenient punishment because they elicit a sense of collective guilt in legal decision-makers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)32-58
Number of pages27
JournalPsychiatry, Psychology and Law
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2018


  • collective guilt
  • jury decision-making
  • punishment
  • veteran

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Psychology (miscellaneous)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Law


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