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If your jurors are happy, will they blame the victim less?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011
posted by Douglas Keene

This is research that flies in the face of the common wisdom that angry jurors award more damages. It is a long-standing tenet of the research literature that when bad things happen to good people we tend to paradoxically blame the victim. It helps us feel safer to believe the harmed party “must have” done something wrong to have such a fate befall them. It allows us to imagine that we wouldn’t have suffered the same fate that the harmed person experienced.

We saw this in a horrifically disturbing case last year where a young coed was stalked and killed despite every decision being made “right” by her parents. As the mock jurors took in this information, they focused on what the victims must have done wrong.  Their disbelief and horror required them to come to terms with the tragedy. They asked repeated questions focused on missteps the parents or the murder victim must have committed. There were none. This family was close-knit and had gone above and beyond in terms of concerns for her safety. As information concerning her autopsy was given to them, jurors were shell-shocked. Speechless. Some cried. And then, as information emerged about the murderer and how he gained access to his victim, they became enraged. Now they knew who was responsible. And they were furious. Their damage awards displayed that anger.

But this research says that in order to avoid ‘blaming the victim’, you want jurors to be happy. Happy? Don’t we know that a happy juror won’t award substantial damages? Happiness in jurors results in a “stuff happens” sort of verdict and does not bode well for damage ceilings. Surely Plaintiffs want Mad jurors, and Defendants want Happy. So it makes sense you might be skeptical. Here’s what they did.

Researchers asserted that a positive mood would serve as a protection against a sense of personal threat, and thus result in less tendency to blame the victim. They believed a negative mood would result in the opposite (less self-protection and more blaming the victim). So they induced happy moods by having half of the research participants watch excerpts from a comedy (Fawlty Towers) and induced sad mood by having the remaining half watch excerpts from a sad movie (Angela’s Ashes). They also had what they called “mood consistent” music playing in the background of both conditions.

Then the participants read a newspaper article “reporting a recent random physical attack in a deserted lane where the victim was assaulted and severely injured by two strangers on his way home one night. The article was accompanied by an emotionally evocative picture of the bloodied victim in a hospital bed.”. (Researchers don’t fool around when they want to shock participants into reacting.) Then they asked the research participants how responsible they thought the victim was and how likely it was that he could have prevented what happened.

They found that those participants who had watched the ‘happy’ movie tended to blame the victim less and those who had watched the ‘sad’ movie, blamed the victim more. Further, the participants placed more blame on the victim when he was one of them (a college student) than when he was described as a corporate employee.

The researchers interpret these results as a happy mood protecting against the threat of bad things happening. They also say that the college student victim was blamed more in order to protect the college student participants from feeling threatened themselves.

What the researchers omitted in their research design is “Angry”.  What we have seen repeatedly is that when jurors become agitated they become mobilized to act. Whether that anger is over the perception of a frivolous lawsuit or heinous disregard for safety, it will drive hard and fast verdicts.  Sadness typically includes a lower level of agitation, and often helplessness.  Happiness may include sympathy and generosity, but it can also swing toward a shallow examination of the facts.

We think we’ll simply continue to operate as we have in the past.

When we want high damages, we want angry and energized jurors with a clear target for their distress.

When we want to keep damages low, we want sad and hopeless jurors who see no way to have avoided the misfortune.

Over the many years of our trial work, we’ve seen jurors look serious, somber, sad, tired, proud, pleased, intense, and sometimes very angry.  But ‘happy’ is perhaps the least likely reaction of all.

Goldenberg, L., & Forgas, J. (2012). Can happy mood reduce the just world bias? Affective influences on blaming the victim. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 239-243

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