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Propaganda, Dogmatism & Bias: Who are your jurors?

Monday, February 15, 2010
posted by Rita Handrich

As the country becomes increasingly divided (again), we are seeing increasing indications of closed minds on jury panels. This is reflected in the blogosphere and in recently emerging research findings. Sadly, this appears to be a time of seeking to affirm pre-existing beliefs rather than informing ourselves and coming to our own conclusions about hot button issues.

It has become commonplace to think that the news channels prospective jurors watch can tell us about their politics. We blogged about this here and here. So it isn’t surprising when we hear the results of a study in the journal Media, War & Conflict telling us that we don’t seek out television news to inform ourselves, but rather to affirm ourselves. That is, we watch television news shows that support our pre-existing beliefs, rather than those that could challenge those pre-existing beliefs.

Or, as Robin Hansen at Overcoming Bias blog tells us, we are “built to rationalize”. In other words, Hansen says, “our minds often unfairly defend our most deeply held beliefs” and “when we sense such beliefs being threatened, our minds distract us, refuse to comprehend alternatives, and grab onto weak excuses as though they were timber”. It is what we do. We use cognitive shortcuts like stereotypes to help us defend against new information and maintain confidence in our pre-existing beliefs.

So given the resistance of entrenched beliefs to change and the relatively short timeframe of most jury trials, how can you attempt to seat a jury most open to actually hearing your case?

  1. If your case resonates with conservative and/or religious values, you may like jurors who show evidence of dogmatism which is, essentially, being powerfully wed to a particular belief system. These jurors will hear your case and dismiss opposing counsel (particularly if you show them how the other side does not resonate with their strongly held values).
  1. If, on the other hand, your case resonates more with liberal or pluralistic values (the more ‘gray’ areas), you want to identify jurors (for disqualification or peremptory strikes) who will dismiss your case without listening. Look for group affiliations that would indicate the likelihood of dogmatic beliefs.

And for those of you curious about a short-hand way to identify those more open-minded—here’s a tidbit. The same study finding that we seek to affirm rather than to inform through our television news habits, also found something that may surprise you. Those who watch television news on the Al Jazeera English network become less dogmatic! And the longer they watch, the more open they are to opposing points of view. We find that very intriguing. Opposing counsel may well know ‘who’ watches Fox or listens to NPR—but do you think they know who listens to Al Jazeera? Ah, but now you’ll make sure to know.

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