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That juror is nodding—are they agreeing with me or with themself?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

It’s a common mistake. We see someone nodding and assume they are agreeing with us. And in the courtroom, that can be a serious error. Recent persuasion research puts even more evidence in the corner of being careful not to assume. As it happens, nodding can simply mean you are agreeing with your own internal dialogue (which could be at total odds with what the speaker is saying). It’s apparently influenced by our posture! We’ve written about the power of posture before, and it’s part of the larger body of research on embodied cognition.

In this work, researchers asked participants to write a list of their best attributes in either a ‘confident posture’ (sitting down, back erect, chest pushed out) or a ‘doubtful posture’ (sitting down, slouched forward with back curved). Both postures resulted in the same number and quality of attributes listed but those in the confident posture reported being more assured of their own positive qualities.

Since the 1980’s, research has verified that slumping over seems to accentuate feelings of helplessness and powerlessness while sitting in a more powerful posture accentuates confidence. In their recent study, however, the researchers suggest that posture did not necessarily induce confidence but rather, gave participants more confidence in their own thoughts.

According to a new blog post at the Psychology Today website, when we see others nodding, we are primed to do it ourselves (and perhaps, thereby convince ourselves of the accuracy of what the speaker is saying). Or, perhaps it is simply an imitation that does not reflect our internal beliefs at all.

The blogger is writing about an older (2003) study by Brinol and Petty where they had students wearing headphones shake their heads up and down or from side to side while listening to a recorded message. Ostensibly, this was to test the headphone performance while moving your head. In truth (you knew there would be a trick here), they wanted to see if the external behavior/movement would be related to what the student participants actually thought about the recorded message. As it turned out, research participants had an internal dialogue that assessed the strength of the message but was often at odds with their external movement.

As we tell our clients, the damage awards in pretrial research are not predictive of what you might see at trial—but the themes and attitudes/beliefs/values that we see in reaction to the presentations are reliably those you need to address to present the best possible case. You can’t necessarily believe what you see (as in, the significance of non-verbal behavior) but you can believe what you hear (pretrial research themes, values and attitudes) in terms of case preparation.

Brodsky, S. Griffin, M. (2009). When Jurors Nod. The Jury Expert.

 
Brinol, P., Petty, R., & Wagner, B. (2009). Body posture effects on self-evaluation: A self-validation approach. European Journal of Social Psychology , 39.

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