Voir dire lesson: “I don’t believe everything I hear”
“Sandra, a fifth-grade teacher, has just completed a science unit on molecules, and her class has done well on the unit test she just handed back. After going over the test, the class heads to recess. Sandra overhears one student who received a high test score asking another, “Do you really believe that stuff about molecules?” The other replies, “No way!” Sandra has never heard such an exchange in 10 years of teaching. She wonders if it is rare for students to disbelieve ideas they have encountered in class or if this occurs regularly and she has just never noticed.” (Chinn and Samarapungavan 2001)
In truth, it happens frequently according to researchers. And not just for controversial topics such as creationism, global warming, or various religious doctrines. We generally fail to distinguish between knowledge (i.e., “I heard it”) and belief (i.e., “I think it’s true”) when we are discussing even widely accepted topics such as historical events, or as above, the structure of the cell.
The distinction is critically important. Just because a teacher/expert may understand and believe these ideas, the student/listener does not and this has important consequences for how information must be presented in order to be not only heard, but also believed.
With adult listeners, such as jurors, for example—evidence strongly suggests that pre-existing attitudes/biases strongly influence beliefs about outcomes. Rather than being open to new conclusions or outcomes, we tend to listen to and retain those facts which support our pre-existing attitudes. This happens most strongly with those attitudes of which we are consciously aware (Fazio, Ledbetter et al. 2000). This is good news for litigators.
The question for jurors is not whether they are “willing to consider evidence about X”, but instead, whether the underlying assumptions about X are things that they are not inclined to accept. By identifying the attitudes and values which will be most negative for your case, you can use that information to your advantage in voir dire. Striking those jurors who will be consciously predisposed to “hear but not believe” will leave you with a panel more likely open to the potential to consider alternate perspectives upon review of the evidence.
Chinn, C. A., & Samarapungavan, A. (2001). Distinguishing between understanding and belief. Theory Into Practice, 40, 235-241.
Fazio, R. H., J. E. Ledbetter, et al. (2000). “On the costs of accessible attitudes: Detecting that the attitude object has changed.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2): 197-210.