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Are we all Millennials at heart? On cynicism when exposed to deception

Monday, March 12, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

When my now 20 year old son was an adolescent he would often talk back to the TV during advertisements with “Yeah, right!” and I worried (like a good psychologist-parent) that I was raising a “too cynical” child. He grew out of the vocalization but not out of the tendency toward cynicism which I know now is a generational trait. Or not.

New research says we all (unless brain injured or quite advanced in age) note deception in advertising and our brains warn us about the deception.

Researchers hooked participants up to fMRI machines while they watched a series of print advertisements. They were not asked to assess the merits (i.e., evaluate) the ads, just to passively observe. The researchers exposed the participants to three (pre-tested) advertisements  deemed “highly believable”, “moderately deceptive” or “highly deceptive”. What they found is intriguing in terms of how our brains deal with threats (even well beyond adolescence).

When the print ads were either “moderately deceptive” or “highly deceptive”, the fMRI results showed increased attention was paid to the ad. Specifically, the precuneous area of the brain (associated with focusing conscious attention) was activated. The more deceptive the ad, the more the precuneous was activated. In short, the more deceptive the ad, the greater the threat and the more the participant focused their attention on the ad itself.

Intriguingly, ads that were “moderately deceptive” caused more overall brain activity than the “highly deceptive” ads. The researchers suspect it is because participants had to work harder with the “moderately deceptive” ads to ascertain the truth while they were able to quickly evaluate and toss away the “highly deceptive” ads.

So how is this connected to litigation advocacy? In several ways.

Most deception in cases that make it to trial is going to be of the “moderately deceptive” type. The good news is that jurors will automatically focus more on those issues to attempt to intuit the truth behind the evidence presented to them.

What we see (over and over again) is that jurors do not want to be told what to think. They want to figure it out for themselves. Most effective is a tight case narrative that answers the questions that naturally emerge in the minds of jurors as they hear your story–and you want to let them draw their own conclusions.

Second, it isn’t just our youngest jurors (the Millennials) who are suspicious and look for deception everywhere. They may simply be more consciously aware of that process. For the rest of us though, our brains are lighting up. Make us consciously aware of our suspicions by questioning witnesses, subtly displaying doubt on your own face, and giving jurors alternatives to opposing counsel’s explanations.

Craig, A., Loureiro, Y., Wood, S., & Vendemia, J. (2011). Suspicious Minds: Exploring Neural Processes During Exposure to Deceptive Advertising. Journal of Marketing Research, 1-12 DOI: 10.1509/jmr.09.0007


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