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The “Nerd Defense”: Redux

Monday, May 9, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

When we first blogged on the ‘nerd defense’ we thought it was an interesting story of how the media distorts research findings to make an intriguing headline. We even wrote about how to really use the actual research findings in your own case in our Simple Jury Persuasion series. And then we asked the author of the research to write for us in the American Society of Trial Consultants flagship publication The Jury Expert.

Michael Brown wrote an article titled ‘Eyeglasses and mock juror decisions’ for the publication. (Notice this title is much less catchy than the ‘nerd defense’. That’s what sells newspapers!)  In the article he tells us what he actually found in that research.

“Our line of research suggests that the presence of eyeglasses on a defendant may significantly affect verdict outcome. However, this effect is likely to be small and indirect. In both scenarios, the presence of eyeglasses increased ratings of defendants’ intelligence. For the violent crime scenario, this increase was associated with less guilty verdicts. Eyeglasses also decreased ratings of defendants’ as threatening; however, this decrease was not significantly related to verdict. Thus, how intelligent a defendant appeared was a better predictor of verdict outcome than how physically threatening he appeared. Future research should examine if other indicators of intelligence (level of education, vocabulary, etc.) produce the similar effects.” See the full article here.

So essentially, what the research says is the eyeglasses might be significant in criminal cases. Might. Following this project, Dr. Brown conducted a study to see if the effects were the same for white collar defendants. In this one (briefly summarized in The Jury Expert) Dr. Brown found that it was actually worse for white collar defendants to wear glasses. As we consider these results, it seems possible to us that a criminal defendant wearing glasses appears less violent and more vulnerable while a white collar defendant wearing glasses looks shifty and more sneaky to jurors. Different frames (dare we say lenses) for looking at a defendant seen as intelligent.

As always in The Jury Expert, various trial consultants comment on the article and then readers write in with comments. One reader wrote in with cautions about it being inappropriate to use research based on college students to discuss potential juror reactions and that you could not use these results in the courtroom. Dr. Brown responds with research findings on the generalizability of college student research to ‘real people’. We have a bit of a different perspective on this issue.

‘People’ try to use research findings all the time. The original newspaper story resulting in the media frenzy over this research makes that abundantly clear. Our belief (as evidenced by our various writings for more than a decade) is that if it is going to happen, it should be happening based on the actual research itself rather than on sensationalized media accounts [which are almost always wildly inaccurate].

We believe there is a gold mine of utility in the findings of research largely based on college student responses. And if you are a regular reader of this blog, you know we believe that based on many of our posts. Most academic research on human reactions is based on college students, and most of the subjects are freshman (participation often being a requirement of introductory Psych 101 classes).   Our practice is based on both experience in the courtroom and in pretrial research but also in the academic writings of researchers who are creating the knowledge of tomorrow. So we want to say ‘thanks’ to Michael Brown and all the other researchers who are out there writing about their research to give us insights into how even the smallest of individual characteristics may be interpreted by triers of fact. Just like we track the polls we track new research. We’re searching for gold.

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