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When you expect a gorilla you often miss other unexpected things

Monday, August 9, 2010
posted by Douglas Keene

Many of us have seen the original change blindness video by academics Dan Simon and Christopher Chabris (“the gorilla guys”). And if you haven’t seen it, watch it here! The original video made quite a splash when it was released and now, not content to be one-hit wonders, these two researchers have released a second video. Watch this one and see if they get you again!

While the researchers say this video is instructive regarding our ‘change blindness’—we can see the lessons for trial lawyers. After living with a case for the length of time it takes to go from taking on a case to filing to depositions to preparing for your day(s) in court—attorneys often lose sight of what will appeal to the potential triers of fact. They know what appeals to them. They know what they think is important. They know what “should” happen. In other words, they expect a gorilla. And jurors often see something else.

One of the true benefits of pre-trial research is the opportunity to see what else happens when the case is presented. That is, do jurors see a gorilla or do they see something else and totally miss the gorilla? We’ve had countless examples of jurors missing the gorilla (or perhaps the attorney missing something even more important to the jurors).

  • A hospital-based malpractice case where the heart-sick nurses shared their feelings with the attorneys but did not show their emotions in deposition testimony. The attorneys knew the nurses’ pain. The jurors saw cold and uncaring and defensive professionals who were likely responsible for harm to an innocent patient. They wanted the hospital staff to understand it was important to care when you are in a caring profession.  Witness preparation focused on helping the nurses to trust their honest feelings, which resulted in them coming across as caring and concerned about patients.
  • A high-dollar patent case where the technology explanation was dense and incomprehensible. After two years in case development, the attorneys were in love with the technology. The jurors, hearing the case for the first time, were confused by the technology and wanted to hear about the people involved. Where was the invention development file?  Who was hurt? Who was cheated? Whose dream was stolen?  If the patent is validated, is anyone harmed?
  • A contract case where much of the agreement was not detailed in writing. (“God bless poorly executed transactions” say the commercial litigators…”)  The attorney thought the fine reputation for good work in the local community would serve the plaintiff well and that jurors would want them to be able to continue in their work. The jurors thought that good practitioners do not necessarily make good business decisions.  They thought the defendant was a schmuck, but also that the plaintiffs had no real case.

In all of these cases (and many others) the attorneys spent so much time and energy on the case that they lost sight of some important facts. They expected a gorilla. If you weren’t expecting a gorilla—what else might you see?

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