Psychology students evaluate Shunick’s impact
More than a year after the Mickey Shunick case captivated the local community, a study by University of Louisiana at Lafayette psychology students found that those more familiar with Shunick and involved with the case were less likely to blame her for what happened but more likely to experience fear.
“For this study, we wanted to predict what the conditions were of why people would react the way they did (to the Shunick case),” said Emily Broussard, a senior in psychology who participated in the study. “So, we wanted to predict who would blame (Shunick) and who wouldn’t.”
Broussard conducted the study with psychology senior Ariel Guillory, also a psychology senior, and two psychology graduate students, Richard Nelson and Samantha Marks. Broussard and Guillory presented the results at a fall conference held by the UL Lafayette Honors Program Nov. 22-23 in Lafayette.
“We found that the more familiar people were with (Shunick) and the more they followed the case, the less they blamed her for what happened,” said Nelson, who ran the results. “Also, the more they knew her, the less harshly they judged women of the same crimes.
“We also examined the fear they felt at the time of the case and the fear that they might have now about similar crimes,” he added. “Those who followed the case more closely than those who did not had more fear both then and now.”
Beginning in September, Broussard said, the group collected data through questionnaires, which they handed out on UL Lafayette’s campus and at downtown events such as Downtown Alive! and Artwalk. There were 70 participants, 34 males and 36 females, whose ages ranged from 17 to 64.
The questionnaires measured four predictors of people’s reactions: the belief in a just world, familiarity with Shunick, involvement in the case and dispositional empathy.
“We looked at belief in a just world, which is the tendency to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people,” explained Broussard. “We looked at dispositional empathy. We also looked at the participant’s involvement in the case, whether they stayed up to date with the case or joined in the search efforts, and also if they were familiar with Mickey.”
Amy Brown, Ph.D., a psychology professor, helped the students conduct the Shunick study as a part of her social psychology lab. Her research primarily focuses on sexual violence, especially why people blame victims, how social norms contribute to sexual violence and whether or not bystanders will intervene to prevent it.
Brown said the Shunick case was discussed frequently at the group’s lab meetings in the fall 2012, and they became angry when people blamed Shunick by claiming that she should have known better than to ride her bike so late at night.
“This whole line of thinking suggests that the solution to men’s violence against women is for women to change their behavior to protect themselves and shifts responsibility away from where it belongs, which is on the men who violate and harass women and the society that allows this type of behavior to happen,” insisted Brown.
She noted that an interesting result of the Shunick study was that belief in a just world did not relate to any of the reactions that the group studied. Instead, familiarity with Shunick and involvement in the case were the more prevalent predictors.
“Now, we don’t know if connection to the case reduced blame or if those predisposed to respond with less blame and more fear were more likely to follow the case,” Brown said. “But it does suggest the possibility that increased feelings of connection with others in one’s community can decrease the tendency to hold victims responsible for their fate.”
Brown commended the Shunick family’s positive response to the tragedy and their efforts to bring people together to get involved with the case. Because of the widespread connection to the Shunick case, she said, people are likely to become less judgmental toward victims of similar crimes.
Broussard explained that Brown consulted Shunick’s sister, Charlene, before the group began its research. Although they did not want to reduce Shunick to a subject in a study, Broussard said, they knew they could learn from her case in order to benefit future victims.
“The feedback that we got when we were giving out questionnaires, the majority of it was positive,” maintained Broussard. “A lot of people thanked us for trying to do studies like this and make the situation a positive one.”