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Archive for September, 2011

Surprise! The minority rules

Wednesday, September 7, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

We use research a lot on this blog to identify potential areas for practice improvement. Sometimes we point to ‘fun’ research that has utility in the courtroom. Research is our friend. Except when it just ticks us off. It’s happened before and it will likely happen again. It certainly is happening now.

Scientists at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have “found that when just 10% of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.”

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.” 

And there is more:

“In general, people do not like to have an unpopular opinion and are always seeking to try locally to come to consensus. We set up this dynamic in each of our models,” said SCNARC Research Associate and corresponding paper author Sameet Sreenivasan. To accomplish this, each of the individuals in the models “talked” to each other about their opinion. If the listener held the same opinions as the speaker, it reinforced the listener’s belief. If the opinion was different, the listener considered it and moved on to talk to another person. If that person also held this new belief, the listener then adopted that belief.

“As agents of change start to convince more and more people, the situation begins to change,” Sreenivasan said. “People begin to question their own views at first and then completely adopt the new view to spread it even further. If the true believers just influenced their neighbors, that wouldn’t change anything within the larger system, as we saw with percentages less than 10.”

It all sounds very persuasive. But it isn’t true. We’ve seen it a lot. When you disagree with what someone says, you tune them out. You don’t go talk to someone else and if they agree with the first person—then modify your own beliefs. It simply doesn’t happen. We don’t even have to focus on more recent polarizing events.

What about owning slaves? Certainly more than 10% agreed with that. And women’s right to vote? Or child labor? Or union rights in general?

There is a reason the ‘fringe’ is called the ‘fringe’. There are certainly those instances where an idea whose time has come launches change. Think about Women’s Suffrage, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, the Vietnam protests and peace marches, and many others.  The irony is that every evolving attitude starts at that “below 10%” level, and grows.  For the research to suggest that if below 10% it has no chance of succeeding is pretty silly.

These researchers are not simply talking about computer models. They are looking at the spread of opinions and predicting how far ‘opinion’ has to spread prior to being accepted as ‘fact’. They are looking at how political polarization might change the percentage needed for a ‘tipping point’.

Sometimes research is our friend. And sometimes we just need to say ‘please’ and turn to a different article for practical utility.

Xie J, Sreenivasan S, Korniss G, Zhang W, Lim C, & Szymanski BK (2011). Social consensus through the influence of committed minorities. Physical review. E, Statistical, nonlinear, and soft matter physics, 84 (1-1) PMID: 21867136

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It’s really hot right now in Texas. We are in extreme drought. This weekend things became heated on my neighborhood email list when someone asked if our HOA had relaxed standards since so many lawns were brown. Multiple others took offense. Finally, someone recommended a cool glass of water for everyone. What’s amusing is that her advice really works to cool down hot tempers.

In truth, the relationship between hot and hazy weather and violent outbursts (so commonly accepted as fact) is pretty murky and uncertain. Scientists are not really sure if violence rises with the temperature or not. A study in Minneapolis recently highlighted by Wired.com showed that crimes of opportunity do go up as the temperature does but only to a certain level. Once people retreat inside to enjoy their air conditioning, crime falls again.

In Iowa, where it gets a little hotter than in Minnesota, a researcher thought you should take time of day into consideration and reassessed the Minneapolis data—finding a linear relationship with assault rates peaking at the highest temperatures. So, who is right? And who is wrong?

It’s akin to the dueling expert witness battles we often see in pretrial research. Jurors don’t like not knowing who is telling the truth and now, the courts are not enjoying it either. The American Medical Association website recently published an article on how expert witnesses are being held accountable for truth-telling. If the article’s sources have their way, the expert witness as ‘gun for hire’ will be a thing of the past. From the perspective of jurors, this would be a very good thing.  From the perspective of ‘truth’, it may be a bit harder to resolve.

It does not, however, reduce the importance of teaching your expert witness how to speak effectively to jurors. Recently, we were back in East Texas for another patent case and a mock juror who described himself [after hearing the first round of evidence] as a “confused good ol’ East Texas boy” told us:

“I have no trouble judging what’s right and wrong. Just tell me the facts. Don’t sugarcoat it. And I’ll tell you what I think is just.”

It will take a long time for jurors to ‘unlearn’ the perception that experts are simply paid endorsements for either side of the case. (Likely about as long as it will take for all of us to understand that the relationship between heat and aggression has inconsistent scientific support.)  In the interim, preparation, education, and occasionally a tall cool glass of water may be just the ticket.

 

Baron, R., & Bell, P. (1976). Aggression and heat: The influence of ambient temperature, negative affect, and a cooling drink on physical aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33 (3), 245-255 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.33.3.245

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Don’t ruin the ending for me!

Friday, September 2, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

I love to read. Now, I tend to read while driving courtesy of my iPod and recorded books. And when this study first came out, I was appalled. ‘Stories are not spoiled by spoilers’. I knew intuitively that it was not true. I want to be pulled along, drawn in and surprised by a good book. I certainly don’t want you to ruin the ending for me.  And someone dares to intimate that telling me the ending will only make the story that much more enjoyable?  I don’t think so.

Researchers used twelve different short stories composed of three types of themes: ironic-twist, mystery and literary. Some stories were presented with a brief ‘spoiler’ paragraph and others were not. In the research, subjects preferred the spoiled versions of all three types of stories. Why? The researchers hypothesize that we like things easier to process so when we know the ending, we prefer the story. They also suggest that we simply enjoy good writing and knowing the story’s ending does not diminish our pleasure.

And as I read their research, I realized a key difference was the idea of a brief, short story. When I am reading, I’ve made a commitment to a longer story. It’s hours and hours of pleasurable uncertainty, and miles and miles of road. I often know whodunit by midway through but I still enjoy getting there. And in that way, the researchers are right. I don’t mind knowing the end if I still don’t know how we get there.

It’s the same for jurors. They start their work knowing the end of the story. The course of trial is about knowing how we got there. In essence, who did what to whom and when and where and (most importantly) why. The key to telling that story is in pacing, carefully constructing the narrative and then in telling the story in an engaging way that does not lead jurors to ‘check out’ along the way. Therein lies the ultimate value of pretrial research. You can see what aspects of the story are particularly compelling to the listener.

And in the ultimate irony, jurors have to choose between two versions of the same story—the plaintiff/prosecution version and the defense version. Which story will they enjoy more? Who tells the story better? More credibly? Whose story more closely aligns with my own attitudes and values and therefore fits into their world view?

It’s good to know that spoilers don’t spoil stories told well. The challenge in court is to never lose sight of the fact that what you are doing is telling the best story you can weave together from the facts of the case.

Leavitt JD, & Christenfeld NJ (2011). Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories. Psychological science PMID: 21841150

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