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Simple Jury Persuasion: Oooh! Seeing that makes me so angry!!!

Friday, April 13, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

We’ve read repeatedly about how video games might increase aggression and how the internet makes us stupid. Each of these positions has proponents and opponents who hotly debate each other at seemingly every opportunity. And if you have heard of the movie, Mean Girls, then you know what the term “relational aggression” means.

Researchers wondered whether media depictions of both physical and relational aggression contribute to aggressive thoughts in women. While prior research had examined the impact of physical aggression (and found that viewing it does increase aggressive thoughts) these researchers were interested in whether viewing relational aggression would also increase aggressive ideation.

They showed female participants clips from one of three different movies: one depicting physical aggression (Kill Bill); one depicting relational aggression (Mean Girls); and one depicting no aggression (What Lies Beneath). They then assessed emotional arousal, had participants complete various questionnaires measuring aggression and asked about television viewing.

The researchers found that both physically and relationally aggressive thoughts are activated following viewing of media aggression.

Those women who saw the Mean Girls clip displayed more relationally aggressive thoughts while women viewing Kill Bill had both higher physically aggressive and higher relationally aggressive thoughts.

The researchers suggest that aggression begets aggression–or that the act of watching physically aggressive media activates the general aggressive neural networks of the viewer. This would encompass both physical and relational aggressive thoughts and would explain the increases in both types of aggressive thoughts after watching a physically aggressive movie clip.

Alternately, they suggest the finding may be gender-dependent and have occurred due to the all-female sample of research subjects. Physical aggression is depicted less often among females and watching Uma Thurman attempt to “kill Bill” may also activate aggressive thoughts of a type that is more gender-normative (i.e., “relational aggression”). They suggest future research investigating the impact of these types of media on male research participants.

From a litigation advocacy standpoint however, what we care about is the activation of the aggressive thoughts–not so much whether viewing physical aggression activates both physically and relationally aggressive thoughts across genders. What this research corroborates is that viewing media depictions of aggression stimulates aggressive thoughts. We know from years of research (and years of work in litigation research) that angry jurors are more likely to act (and award damages or convict) than are sad and hopeless jurors. What this research says is that viewing aggressive media activates aggressive thoughts.

This may have implications for ‘day in the life’ videos, evidence videos/animations, or other court admitted film/video. While it is straightforward to see how a physical injury/assault case can make use of aggressive visuals, even a videographer’s depiction of a broken contract can be presented with aggressive themes/visuals. Editing strategies can be smooth or jarring. Sound tracks can be soothing or edgy. The idea is to activate the aggressive cognitions within your jurors and then give them an action to take to honor those aggressive impulses.

If you are opposing counsel, you want to reframe the aggressive actions depicted by the plaintiff/prosecution as sad, misdirected anger that won’t turn back time. While the plaintiff/prosecution wants to ramp up anger, you want to turn it down and replace it with sadness and hopelessness–a “stuff happens” reaction that will inoculate against high damage awards or a guilty verdict. And find a way to convey that video editing, formatting images, and sound tracks can be argumentative and prejudicial.

Coyne SM, Linder JR, Nelson DA, & Gentile DA (2012). “Frenemies, Fraitors, and Mean-em-aitors”: Priming Effects of Viewing Physical and Relational Aggression in the Media on Women. Aggressive Behavior PMID: 22331575

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