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We have nothing to fear (unless we are conservative)

Friday, February 3, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

A number of recent research projects have focused on attitudinal differences corresponding to political orientation. Many of them have looked at whether our political leanings are based in our genes. That is, we’re born this way. We have another one and this one is on how fear motivates conservatives (more than it motivates liberals).

First, research participants were assessed to see if they were liberal or conservative (based on self-reports and a series of questionnaires to ensure consistency). Those with the strongest political positions (strong liberal and strong conservative) were selected to continue with the study. Then, researchers tested skin conductance changes [as subjects looked at either positive or aversive images] and gaze attraction [what did you look at first and what did you look at longest].

Because we know you are wondering, the aversive images were a spider on a man’s face; an open wound with maggots in it; and a crowd fighting with a man.  The positive images were a happy child; a bowl of fruit; and a cute rabbit. You can see a more detailed description of the study online at Miller-McCune.

What they found is interesting:

Conservatives spent a longer time paying attention to the aversive images and their reactivity to those images was higher. It was as if they could not look away. Were they afraid? They were drawn to the aversive images twice as fast as the liberal participants and spent a much longer time staring at them. But the researchers did not think they were afraid. Instead, the researchers thought “individuals on the political right are not so much ‘fearful’ and ‘vulnerable’ as attuned and attentive to the aversive in life”.

It wasn’t that liberals didn’t look (or as the researchers say, “they did their share of gawking”) they simply didn’t look as long and were more drawn to the positive images.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this study would indicate that if you are plaintiff and there are gruesome images, conservative jurors are likely going to be more impressed with the potential threat to their safety. Some would say, they might be more influenced by the “reptile approach”.  Know that conservative jurors are going to spend more time dwelling on them than liberal jurors. The open question for you is: “how are these images going to move decision-making, and how can I optimize their impact on my case?” Do the liberal jurors turn away more quickly because they are upset? Are they prone to deny the impact of the image? Do conservative jurors gaze longer because they are immune to the emotional impact, or because they are internalizing a sense of threat and will react more harshly to its cause?  A simple pre-trial focus group can give you insight into what jurors think about the images, as well as insight into the potential value of knowing their conservative or liberal leanings.

It is important to bear in mind that participants in this study were those who were very conservative and very liberal. When we see mock jurors that identify themselves that way–they are often unpredictable and emotionally reactive for idiosyncratic reasons. They are simply not good bets as either pro-defense or pro-plaintiff, as they are prone to seizing on what they see as a key subtlety of the case and making more of it than anyone else thinks makes sense.

Although there is a growing literature similar to this research, and certainly a growing political polarization in the country–don’t rely on this criteria (liberal or conservative) in selecting jurors for your case without knowing where the jurors’ judgements go as they look at the images. As one of a number of criteria, it is likely fine. Alone? It’s dangerous.

Dodd MD, Balzer A, Jacobs CM, Gruszczynski MW, Smith KB, & Hibbing JR (2012). The political left rolls with the good and the political right confronts the bad: connecting physiology and cognition to preferences. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 367 (1589), 640-9 PMID: 22271780

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