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Simple Jury Persuasion: Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful…

Friday, November 26, 2010
posted by Rita Handrich

It’s like that 1980’s shampoo commercial featuring Kelly LeBrock that seemed so silly.  “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful…”. And decades later, we find that the sentiment is not only true, but we know it is true and we fear what will happen when others envy us! The research findings that we truly dislike the workplace colleague who always volunteers for every task caused a lot of conversation around the web last month. But there’s more.

We are complex beings. Back in 1939, a researcher noticed something odd while in Polynesia studying ‘fishers’.

“While studying Polynesian fishers, Firth (1939) noticed something odd. When one fisher caught fish and others did not, he would give away all of his catch. If he did not, the others would talk negatively about him back in the village. This sharing behavior was called te pi o te kaimeo, the blocking of envy.” (van de Ven, Zeelenberg & Pieters, 2010, p 1)

Oddly enough, this sort of behavior continues today in multiple situations. Researchers examined two forms of envy: benign envy (where you would like to improve your own standing/position) and malicious envy (where you want to pull down/destroy the standing/position of the envied other).  According to the researchers, if you have a deserved advantage, you will likely be the target of benign envy. If, on the other hand, you are seen to have an undeserved advantage, you will likely attract malicious envy. So they devised experiments to see what would happen. The findings are intriguing: if the object of jealousy thought they were the target of malicious envy—they were much more likely to engage in helpful (“prosocial”) behavior toward the envious person. They would spend time talking and offering advice and they would offer assistance. If, on the other hand, they thought themselves the targets of benign envy—they would not extend themselves to the envious other.

The researchers explained this behavior as a way of maintaining the peace in group interactions. If your advantage or position might cause conflict, taking the time to help others could diminish hard feelings.

This dynamic shows itself in trials frequently.  You have to position your client (whether plaintiff or defendant) as deserving of good fortune, and undeserving of random hardship.  So plaintiffs are shown as the kind of people that communities need and value.  Defendants are seen as well intended and hard working, and undeserving of the shame and the blame.

If they see your client as undeserving, malicious envy could kick in and result in them taking action against your client (in an effort to diminish your clients position/standing). If this is the case, you want to find ways to show that your client’s hard work and efforts resulted in their position/standing so that jurors may experience benign envy but will not react against your client.

We saw this principle in action in a case we worked on where the very wealthy but self-made defendant had indeed engaged in behavior that we expected to result in a negative reaction from jurors. Instead, what happened was that jurors focused on how he had worked hard to be financially successful, his honesty, and his love for family. They forgave him for his shocking transgressions (they saw it as a sign of his ‘humanity’) and admired him for his successes. What could have been malicious became benign.

van de Ven N, Zeelenberg M, & Pieters R (2010). Warding Off the Evil Eye: When the Fear of Being Envied Increases Prosocial Behavior. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS PMID: 20889930

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