Psychology, Department of


First Advisor

Richard Wiener

Date of this Version



A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Psychology, Under the Supervision of Professor Richard L. Wiener. Lincoln, Nebraska: November 2022

Copyright © 2022 Megan C. Berry-Cohen


Recent research has examined how extra-legal factors such as emotions and stereotypes impact legal judgment decisions regarding traditionally vulnerable populations. Less work has explored not only what makes a group vulnerable, but how people perceive, interpret, and apply that vulnerability. The current research therefore integrates psychological theory and legal models to understand vulnerability and its implications. Three studies examined the roles of various factors, including dehumanization and empathy, in understanding how people respond to vulnerable individuals in general and then to women who have survived sexual violence.

In Experiment 1, I manipulated sex (female vs. male), age (older: 60 years or older vs. younger: 25 years or younger vs. control: between 26 and 59 years old), experience of poverty (yes vs. no), and experience of sexual violence (yes vs. no) to understand how person and context vulnerabilities explain judgments of vulnerability. I found that poverty and sexual violence emerged as the strongest predictors of how individuals conceptualize vulnerability, showing contextual factors drive perceptions of vulnerability most consistently. Next, in Experiments 2 and 3, I manipulated vulnerability status and legal vulnerability to explore how different perceptions of vulnerability lead to negative or harmful legal judgment outcomes for female victims of two types of sexual violence – sex trafficking and sexual assault.

Vulnerabilities were more protective for sex trafficking survivors because they elicited more empathy, but more harmful for sexual assault survivors because they elicited more dehumanization. Essentially, the type of sexual violence did matter, and participants’ reactions to survivors’ vulnerabilities were more important than the vulnerabilities themselves. Indeed, it is not vulnerability alone but the reactions it elicits that drive legal judgments. Together all three studies showed that vulnerability can be both protective and dehumanizing – depending on certain factors.

Advisor: Richard L. Wiener