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Witness Preparation: First impressions REALLY do matter!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009
posted by Douglas Keene

first impressionsRemember that famous study saying communication is 55% body language, 38% tonal, and 7% verbal? Turns out that is unfortunately a distorted (albeit widely disseminated) report of the study results. While non-verbal communication isn’t as powerful as that oft-repeated research version of an urban legend would lead us to believe, we do know that first impressions (often based on appearance rather than what is said) are powerful.

When it comes to witnesses, and how witnesses present themselves in the courtroom, this knowledge is beyond valuable. Mock jurors in pre-trial research make instantaneous judgments on character and personality by simply looking and listening. A recent project we worked on asked participants to assess an attractive young woman who had made some mistakes that became quite public. Mock juror assessments of her were remarkably consistent (and remarkably negative).

They overlooked her attractiveness and focused instead on her too frequent sniffing (“I think she just took a hit of cocaine”); appearing older than her age (“She looks pretty old for her age—like she’s used up”); and her apparent anxiety (“She is enjoying playing around with authority—she thinks she’s pretty smart and doesn’t take this seriously”). These impressions were not based on her words, but rather on how she looked and juror pre-dispositions to view her negatively.

Some new research enlightens us with updated information on how people make instantaneous judgments about others based on physical appearance alone. Laura Naumann and Sam Gosling led a study described on the Situationist blog where participants were asked to infer personality characteristics based on full-body photographs (not video). They were shown either a controlled pose (with a neutral facial expression) or a naturally expressed pose. With the controlled pose, traits were difficult to infer (although participants did a good job with extraversion and self-esteem). Photographs of naturally expressed poses were a different matter. Instantaneous impressions of naturally expressed poses were accurate for 9 of 10 personality traits (e.g., extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness, likability, self-esteem, loneliness, religiosity and political orientation) they were asked to assess.

Gosling makes recommendations about how to communicate specific traits by varying whether you smile and how you stand (tense or relaxed, energetic or tired). Specifically, extraverts smile more, appear more energetic and relaxed, and appear healthy, neat and stylish. Giving witnesses feedback on how to relax their bodies, how to communicate energy, and how to seem likable and credible can give them more confidence and result in a more positive impression upon the jury.

As you are preparing witnesses, watch how they present themselves physically. Jurors certainly do.

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