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My soul is not for sale!

Monday, February 6, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Oh really? Then why are the US Navy, the US Air Force and the NSF looking at how we make decisions to sell our souls? As it happens, when we are considering disavowing “sacred values”, a specific cognitive process occurs. That has to be good, of course, since we wouldn’t want soul-selling to be relegated to our general, everyday cognitive processes.

For this research, participants were wired up to fMRI machines to measure and record brain responses. In phase one of the experiment, participants were shown statements like the mundane “you are a tea drinker” to the more controversial “you are pro-life”. They were asked to choose if they agreed or disagreed with the statement.

In phase two, participants were offered up to $100 for signing a document stating the opposite of what they believed. For those statements they valued highly, they could opt out of the monetary reward. When a participant refused to sell out their values (aka ‘soul’), the researchers identified that statement as a personally sacred value for that individual. The researchers compared the fMRI’s for non-sacred and sacred values and found that different areas of the brain were activated when the individual considered whether they would sell the value statement. Thus, the researchers saw an entirely different decision-making process underway.

These findings are not particularly surprising to those who track the neuroscience literature. What is unknown is which values and attitudes are “personally sacred” to the individual. Or, as we think of it in constructing trial arguments, which statements correspond to firmly held or ‘core’ beliefs and values? The experiment was done as part of a series of experiments looking at cultural conflicts. What we see in our focus groups and mock trials is that there are idiosyncratic “sacred” ideas or perspectives for some jurors.

When we are doing corporate or contract work, we hear jurors who say “that just isn’t right” and other jurors who say “it’s just business and it happens all the time”.

When we are doing patent work, we hear jurors say “the inventor should get money for this idea for all time” and others who say “technology has moved on and this patent doesn’t have value”.

In personal injury death cases, we hear jurors agreeing that “No amount of money can compensate the family for the loss of a loved one”.  But the impact of that belief is that some jurors say that as a result the family should get little or nothing, while others feel that the moon is not high enough.

All of these positions represent sacred values to those engaged in the dispute. The key is to do one of three things:

Identify those whose core beliefs are at odds with your case, and strike as many of them as possible.

Reframe your trial story so that jurors won’t feel that the verdict is inconsistent with their core or soul-defining values.

Since strategies 1 and 2 above are often incomplete strategies, determine which jurors with problematic values you can still live with.  Identify those that will be open to your story and will surprise themselves by making a decision inconsistent with what they believe is a deeply held value. We’ve seen this happen. And when it does happen, it can be a beautiful thing.

Berns, G., Bell, E., Capra, C., Prietula, M., Moore, S., Anderson, B., Ginges, J., & Atran, S. (2012). The price of your soul: neural evidence for the non-utilitarian representation of sacred values Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367 (1589), 754-762 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0262


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