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Simple Jury Persuasion: Pollyanna got a bad rap–maybe

Friday, February 24, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Not only are ‘Pollyanna’ type people good lie detectors they are also good-hearted people in general. They “value relationships, prosocial behavior and smooth interpersonal interactions”. What wonderful jurors! Maybe. And maybe not.

Imagine that your case involves allegations of conduct that Plaintiff or Prosecutor feels is an assault on social values.  Behavior that Pollyanna would never engage in, and perhaps never even imagine.  Will they be optimistic and think the best of the person, or will they act with punitive vigor (even though that suggests negative thinking)?

According to the research, Pollyanna’s experience more distress about relational transgressions. Curious researchers wondered how that heightened reactivity might translate in the Pollyanna’s perception of communal behaviors [positive] and communal transgressions [negative]. Contrary to popular belief that Pollyanna’s see the best in everyone, the researchers hypothesized that Pollyanna’s would tend toward extremes–judging communal behaviors more positively and communal transgressions more negatively.

They were right. Although participants (across four different studies) were likely to view transgressions negatively, highly agreeable participants (the Pollyanna’s) were more likely than others to judge those behaviors negatively. What is intriguing is that the Pollyanna’s were more harsh when the negative behaviors were related to group or individual relationships. There were caveats:

Pollyanna’s only showed a negativity effect when they could clearly and unambiguously identify the transgression as relational/communal.

There had to be little incentive for the Pollyanna to “regulate away” (i.e., repress, deny, forget) an initially negative evaluation. Why? The researchers also discuss the “tension within the agreeable perceiver”. Essentially, Pollyanna’s are often in a bind because they have “private negative judgments that they cannot or will not express publicly (or would feel guilt for expressing)”. To compensate for this anxiety about public censure, researchers ensured that the Pollyanna’s could privately express their judgments.]

It’s an intriguing study for litigation advocacy. The Pollyanna will judge positive and negative behaviors more harshly and yet, may be averse to sharing those judgments publicly for fear of censure from others. (e.g., they don’t want to be seen as impolite or uncharitable in their public judgments). When you sit around a table with eleven peers where the entire goal is to express your opinion–that would be pretty threatening to a Pollyanna–at least if you think of Pollyanna traditionally (as all positivity, sunshine and light).

If, however, jurors were educated about the importance of judgment in litigation and the Pollyanna therefore saw it as a duty to be clear–even if negative–their behavior may differ. Pollyanna’s are more attuned to relational transgressions and that finding may have general relevance for the trial lawyer:

Criminal defense attorneys would likely want to avoid the Pollyanna as a juror since whether a crime against persons or a corporate malfeasance–the Pollyanna is likely to see the behavior as hurtful to someone and therefore want to punish.

Civil defense attorneys will want to be careful with the Pollyanna juror as well. If there is a way to see the case narrative as a transgression (and most likely there will be), the Pollyanna juror will react more negatively than other jurors.

Plaintiff attorneys may welcome the Pollyanna if the case themes involve harm to social fabric or relationships among the wronged parties. When the claim of Plaintiff is that they have been wronged, the wrong had better extend beyond their own personal and selfish interest. If a case narrative is well-told (and especially if the plaintiff has behaved positively toward others and still been transgressed against), the Pollyanna will be more inclined to embrace the plaintiff view.

It’s certainly an area well worth considering examining in pretrial research and voir dire. The Pollyanna may well be hiding within an exterior that looks like a leader and is highly persuasive. The balance could be in this person’s gentle hands.

Kammrath, L., & Scholer, A. (2011). The Pollyanna Myth: How Highly Agreeable People Judge Positive and Negative Relational Acts Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (9), 1172-1184 DOI: 10.1177/0146167211407641

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