Reshaping the 'Grotesque' Doctrine of Character Evidence: The Reform Implications of the Most Recent Psychological Research

31 Pages Posted: 5 Oct 2006

See all articles by Edward J. Imwinkelried

Edward J. Imwinkelried

University of California, Davis - School of Law


One of the arguments in favor of the enactment of Federal Rules of Evidence 413-15 was that recent psychological research indicated that a person's character traits are more predictive of conduct than had previously been assumed. The advocates of the new statutes pointed to the emergence of the interactionist school in psychology. The proponents of interactionism asserted that given an adequate sample of a person's conduct in similar situations, a reasonably confident prediction of the person's behavior in an analogous situation can be made.

The purpose of this article is to update the psychological research on personality and explore the implications of the most recent research for Evidence law. After surveying the 21st century psychological literature, the article initially finds that the most recent research essentially confirms the interactionist position. However, the article also points out that modern psychologists have largely abandoned attempts to predict future conduct on the basis of a single other instance of the person's conduct - the very type of inference that Rules 413-15 allow the trier of fact to draw. Thus, the article concludes that the behavioral assumption underlying Rules 413-15 remains suspect.

In addition, the article notes that interactionists reject notions of global character traits and have in effect redefined character traits as behavioral tendencies in particular types of situations. That redefinition has several implications for evidence doctrine: The minority view on character evidence, permitting an accused to introduce testimony about general, moral, law-abiding character, is unsound; it is equally indefensible to permit impeachment with convictions for conduct unrelated to truthfulness; and in determining under Rule 403 whether conduct otherwise admissible under Rules 413-15 is sufficiently similar to the charged offense, the trial judge should consider the situational cues presented by the two fact situations.

Suggested Citation

Imwinkelried, Edward J., Reshaping the 'Grotesque' Doctrine of Character Evidence: The Reform Implications of the Most Recent Psychological Research. Southwestern University Law Review, Forthcoming, UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 91, Available at SSRN:

Edward J. Imwinkelried (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States

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