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Why facts don’t matter

Wednesday, May 4, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

We’ve sat behind enough darkened focus group mirrored windows chewing peanut M&Ms to know that facts are often left behind as mock jurors deliberate. Instead we hear observations based in pre-existing individual beliefs. But beliefs about what? In some cases, it seems to be religion or political affiliations. In others, it’s about race (well, actually racism). In still others, it seems to be about nothing we can pinpoint.

The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale is an emerging favorite of ours because they ask tough questions and ponder the answers with intelligence and insight. We posted on some of their work a few months back as we wrote about the ignoring of facts in favor of confirmation of individually held beliefs.

Now, David Ropeik guest blogs at Scientific American and points to the Cultural Cognition Project as a means of defining the term “cultural cognition”. Ropeik refers to an anthropologist (Mary Douglas) and her work on social organization in primitive cultures. Douglas’ work identified four groups of people: Individualists, Communitarians, Hierarchists and Egalitarians.

Ropeik explains how these folks make up our society today and what we can expect to hear from them:

Individualists are people who think society should mostly leave the individual alone. Government should butt out, not butt in. Politically these folks are Libertarians or Tea Party members.

Communitarians are deeply concerned about environmental issues in part because they require a communal response. Communitarians strongly support social welfare programs and government regulation, because that’s how a “we’re all in it together” society should work.

Hierarchists espouse family values and prefer a society operating within rigid class structures and the comfortable predictability of the status quo. Hierarchists, for example, will argue for traditional marriage between a man and a woman for lots of supposedly rational reasons, but the core reason is simply that that’s the way it’s always been, and a society living according to ‘the way it’s always been’ and predictable fixed rules feels safe to them.

Egalitarians include those in the anti-vaccine movement. They prefer a more flexible society, where people are not constrained by class or traditional knowledge or the limits of the status quo. To them, the rules defining marriage should be more flexible because they prefer to live in a more flexible society.

[Edited for brevity from guest blog at Scientific American.]

These are intriguing groupings/definitions for those of us who struggle to understand the how and why of jury decision-making.  They are interesting in that they provide higher order groupings than simple categorization by religion, political affiliation or demographics.

We’ve known for a long, long time that trying to determine decision-making direction based on demographics is rarely effective. While we have gleaned new ways of looking at traditional demographic indicators, attitudes and experiences and values are still much more likely to point the way along the [often convoluted] decision-making path. These groupings are all about attitudes and values and experiences. They are about beliefs that drive the individual.

We’ll be looking more closely at these descriptors in our upcoming pre-trial research. In a time of social upheaval in America, it would be ironic (and comforting) to know we can turn to very old observational research to understand decision-making today.


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