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Simple Jury Persuasion: Can walking to the jury room make jurors forget your evidence?

Monday, November 14, 2011
posted by Rita Handrich

You know how when you leave a room to get something and you arrive in the new room with no idea what you wanted to retrieve?  This is sort of like that. But worse. Researchers looked at the act of walking through an open doorway and studied the effect on memory.

First, they studied it virtually–having participants ‘walk’ through a ‘room’ on a computer screen and pick up objects. They checked memory for what was in the ‘box’ the objects went in to when participants picked them up (virtually). What they found was that memory for what they had retrieved was better if they were in the room where they had retrieved the objects. But, if they (virtually) wandered from the original room into another, their recall for what they had picked up was not as good. We know what you’re thinking. The researchers thought that too. So (we imagine) they applied for Part 2 of their research grant and tested it in real life.

For the second experiment, the researchers had people wander through real rooms, picking up real objects, and putting them in a real box (closed after each deposit). And they had the same results. When participants crossed through a doorway, their memory was worse than if they had traveled the same distance within a single room. Virtual or real, the results were the same. So. Again reading our minds, the researchers decided to see if returning to the original room would trigger the memory. (We’ve all done it– when you wander out in search of coffee, but cannot recall what you wanted and so go back to your desk, you see the sadly empty cup and recall what it was you so desperately wanted.)

Shock! It was not to be. Memory performance was no better when tested back in the original room. It’s about that doorway. It seems to create a sort of temporal boundary. And the more doors participants went through, the worse their memory got. The researchers cite a study where the simple act of reading a story compromised memory with participants having more trouble recalling narrative content if the phrase “a while later…” was included in the text.

So, is this an argument for sequestering the jury? Maybe, keeping them trapped in the courtroom itself?! You avoid them walking out of the courtroom, through multiple doors and then (horrors) walking through rooms in their home, in a restaurant, at a movie theater, in the mall…the list goes on and on!

Unfortunately, this isn’t sensible or even a solution. So, alternatives.  Conduct your closing right before they depart to the jury room.  And in your closing, you include vivid anticipation of what they will find in that ‘next room’.  In that next room (the jury room) they will find exhibits, they will sit at the table and recall [specific elements of the] evidence, and they will recall images, feelings, and understanding of the facts.  By ‘placing the items in the new box’, they may have a better chance of surviving the memory journey.

Radvansky GA, Krawietz SA, & Tamplin AK (2011). Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. , 64 (8), 1632-45 PMID: 21563019


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