Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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A matter of perception

2013 grad publishes paper on psychology and prison reform

It’s not every day that an undergraduate student authors a paper published in a national journal, but alumna Megan O’Toole ’13 accomplished exactly that when her senior honors thesis was published in the May 2014 issue of Applied Psychology in Criminal Justice.

O’Toole, who has since started a doctoral program in psychology and law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, co-authored the paper with Associate Provost Gail Sahar as an undergraduate at Wheaton.

“She really took the lead,” Sahar said of O’Toole. “We worked together, but she was the motivator of the whole study.”

The paper, titled “The effects of attributions for crime on attitudes toward prison reform,” delves into an area the alumna became passionate about while at Wheaton. A psychobiology major pursing a minor in legal studies, O’Toole first formed an interest in forensic psychology during an abnormal psychology course.

Then the Filene Center set her up with an internship at the Rhode Island State Prison’s Mental Health Department, and she got an inside look at what it was like to be in a U.S. prison.

It was an educational experience in more ways than one.

“I was moved by the impact of limited funding, resources and research on the inmates’ experiences,” O’Toole said. “To me, it seemed obvious that this population had gone through a lot of hardships in their lives—not ones that always justified their harmful actions, but ones that needed to be addressed in order to impact change, and ones that incarceration often largely neglects.”

That realization inspired the Yarmouth, Maine native to conduct further research into how the public’s lack of motivation to help inmates relates to and affects the prison system’s shortcomings.

“In a democracy, resources largely go where the majority of people see them as needed,” she said. “I started to wonder how the public's perceptions of what leads to criminal behaviors (i.e. evil intent or harmful environments) might impact their drive to engage with the issue of prison reform.”

After choosing the topic for her senior honors thesis, O’Toole began looking for a faculty advisor. Her search eventually led her to the office of Sahar, a professor of psychology whose research interests include studying how people react to controversial social issues.

As associate provost, Sahar usually wouldn’t be involved in thesis advising, but she said O’Toole’s passion for the subject impressed her.

“She made such a compelling case,” Sahar said. “She’s this very dynamic, very motivated person, and she was just dying to do the thesis.”

They discussed how the paper could best fit with Sahar’s research, which centers on the concept of attribution theory—the idea that how a person perceives the cause of a social problem or issue is directly related to how that person reacts to that problem or issue. Together, they designed a survey of Wheaton students, posing various crime scenarios involving a male perpetrator and asking what the students believed was the cause of the individual’s behavior. Students were also asked questions about their general perception of crime and about prison reform.

“She got support for the idea that if people see the crime as internal and controllable, they blame the perpetrator and hold him responsible. The more they hold him responsible, the more angry they are, the more they feel he should be punished, that he should be made to suffer, and the less supportive they are of funding for prison reform,” Sahar said. “It followed the pattern we find with a lot of other social problems, but nobody had done this before on prison reform, so it was really a new approach.”

The paper was started the summer of O’Toole’s junior year at Wheaton and submitted to the journal the summer after she graduated. It was accepted soon after for publication.
“Writing this paper was an amazing experience, and working with Professor Sahar was one of the best parts of that,” O’Toole said. “She encouraged me to make the most of this experience: attempt to gather data from outside sources, share drafts with future potential mentors at John Jay, publish after completion, etc., and I feel so lucky to have had that sort of guidance and encouragement.”

At John Jay College, O’Toole is a Pinkerton Research Fellow, supporting the work of juvenile justice agencies in the city. After earning her doctorate, she hopes to conduct research at a nonprofit organization—one that partners with government officials to promote forward-thinking criminal justice policies.

“I'm hoping that with my knowledge of public attitudes toward punishment as well as the practical field knowledge I've been gaining through my consulting work in the fellowship, I'll be well-equipped to help inform a cultural shift away from punishing for the sake of retribution, and instead toward promoting public safety and reform for those who have done wrong,” she said.