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Simple Jury Persuasion: The “turban effect”

Friday, May 4, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Yes, we know. You get this. Since 9-11-2001, we are all wary of Muslims and other turban-wearing people [who, after all, must be Muslim]. Regardless of the (in)accuracy of this perspective, it is prevalent and seemingly hard-wired in our brains. All the “true Islam does not condone violence” clarifications in the world do not seem to mitigate the bias.

We still see 2012 surveys showing (for example) that about half the Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi believe Obama to be Muslim. We see multiple depictions of President Obama wearing a turban which we presume, are meant to incite anger and fear. So, here’s a study we missed earlier on how we automatically kill video game non-Caucasian opponents who wear turbans first. Because they are wearing turbans. Which makes them dangerous. Because they wear turbans. Turbans = Danger. (See how life just got simpler?!)

This study was conducted in Australia with “otherwise liberal and tolerant Australian undergraduates” and the authors suspect there would be an even stronger “turban effect” in either the US or Britain (both of whom have experienced assaults by Muslim terrorists). In the study, participants playing a violent video game were much more likely to shoot “Muslim-looking characters” whether male or female–even if they were carrying an innocent item rather than a weapon. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the subjects all denied any intention to behave in this biased way and the post-game debriefing left them “very uncomfortable”.

“Whether they’re holding a steel coffee mug or a gun, people are just more likely to shoot at someone who is wearing a turban,” says author Christian Unkelbach, a visiting scholar at Australia’s University of New South Wales. “Just putting on this piece of clothing changes people’s behaviour.”

Another odd finding in this research was that a positive mood increased the tendency to shoot more at turban-wearing characters while an angry mood increased the tendency to shoot at all characters. The researchers took this finding to indicate that a positive/happy mood often results in a “top-down, assimilative processing that facilitates the influence of stereotypes on responses”. In other words, being in a positive mood makes you more likely to act on stereotypes and selectively shoot more video game opponents wearing turbans. They also comment (in plain language this time) that “even tolerant university students will display strong negative biases towards Muslims”.

So what does this mean for litigation advocacy? A lot.

If you have a Muslim client who wears a turban, headgear or a hijab, you need to pay special attention to bias as you proceed through voir dire, witness preparation, and pretrial research. You’ll find some additional voir dire tips here.

Obviously, you need to make your client as similar to the jurors as possible to minimize the impact of his or her ‘differentness’ and threat. The opportunity to do that with their attire may not be possible, so you have to do it through other means (collateral witnesses, personal life story, discussions of their work, their family, their kids. etc.). By doing so, you control the “intuitive interpretations” jurors may make in the absence of a conscious effort to draw connections between your client and the jurors themselves.

We’ve seen bias against Muslims in our pretrial work that is intense and intractable and acceptance that is a thing of beauty. Recently, we hired a Iranian subcontractor to do some computer programming for us on a jury selection tool. In our first meeting, curious as to how he had gained entry to the US after 9/11, we asked him to tell his story. His face lit up as he described how he came to be in this country, his family (his hijab-wearing wife and three daughters), his sense of the US (“I have found my country”) and his directives to his daughters on breaking the ice with new acquaintances (“Tell them you are not a terrorist”). Ultimately, we were touched and felt emotional similarities with him we would not have predicted.

It often works with jurors too.

Unkelbach, C., Forgas, J., & Denson, T. (2008). The turban effect: The influence of Muslim headgear and induced affect on aggressive responses in the shooter bias paradigm Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (5), 1409-1413 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.04.003