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Should political orientation matter in voir dire?

Monday, June 4, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

The answer is, “sometimes”. Ultimately, we all tend to favor the side that appears to reflect our values. When jury issues are values driven (often the case) and politics are values driven (as politicians would like us to believe) there can be a nexus. We see and judge the world based on whether it appears to be similar or dissimilar to our core values and life experiences. Good case themes echo values that are widely held, and good jury selection is aimed at eliminating people whose values are at odds with the core elements of the case we need to prove. And political orientation (which tracks with the kinds of news we prefer to see and hear) is a glimpse of those values. Many of us recall the Jon Stewart survey of Daily Show listeners being more informed than Fox News listeners.

What we may have forgotten is that finding came from a 2007 study by the well-regarded Pew Research Center:

“viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report have the highest knowledge, while Fox News viewers rank nearly dead last.”

And intriguingly, that pattern has not shifted in the past 5 years! A new survey from Fairleigh Dickinson University says NPR and the Sunday talk shows are the best at informing listeners/viewers:

NPR and Sunday morning political talk shows are the most informative news outlets, while exposure to partisan sources, such as Fox News and MSNBC, has a negative impact on people’s current events knowledge.

You may wonder about how political affiliation enters into this picture. obliges with this description:

Interestingly, the results of the poll controlled for partisanship. MSNBC, Fox and talk radio consumers answered more questions correctly when their political views aligned with those of the outlets they preferred. Moderates and liberals who watched only Fox did worse than conservatives who watched it. This mirrored the results at MSNBC, where a conservative viewer could be expected to answer an average of .71 international questions correctly, for example, and a liberal viewer could be expected to answer 1.89 questions correctly. “None of the other news media had effects that depended on ideology,” says the report.

And why would this make us question the usefulness of political orientation in voir dire? Mainly because we use surveys to help us make sense of new research. And that’s where things get interesting. As it turns out, we don’t extend our empathy across the political aisle. In other words, political values are emotionally charged and if our political views diverge, we are less inclined to believe that any other values are held in common.

How did they measure this? Sideways, of course. You can’t just go ask someone if they are biased against those who have different politics. You have to be more indirect (aka sneaky) than that.

These researchers live in Michigan where it’s breathtakingly cold in winter. Most of us assume that if we are cold (breathtakingly cold)–others are likely cold (breathtakingly cold) as well. Unless we see them as really different than ourselves. So the researchers went out to bus stops in the midst of winter in Ann Arbor, Michigan and asked people waiting for a bus to participate in a brief study. The researchers presumed it safe to assume that all these people were cold.

Each person was given a short story to read. The story was about a person who was either a left-wing, pro-gay rights Democrat or a Republican proponent of traditional marriage, who goes hiking in winter but gets lost with no food, water, or extra clothes. After reading the story, they were asked whether the hunger, thirst, or cold was most unpleasant for the hiker and what the hiker most regretted not packing. They were also asked how hungry, thirsty, and cold the hiker felt, and what their own political views were. The researchers gave the same task to people who were warm and comfortable in the nearby library.

People who had the same politics as the fictional hiker judged the hiker to be cold like them, as previous research predicts. But if the hiker had different politics, subjects weren’t affected by their strong feelings; cold outdoor participants didn’t think the dissimilar hiker was any colder than did warm indoor participants. This shows that the tendency to project your feelings onto others does not extend to people who are very different from you, even when the feelings otherwise overwhelm your judgments.”Even if you’re feeling shared pain, you may not let that connection affect your opinions of people that are seen as very, very different from you,” O’Brien says.

In this polarized society, even in liberal (albeit breathtakingly cold Ann Arbor, Michigan)–the perceived politics of others may result in an unwillingness or even, an inability to extend empathy across that ever-widening aisle. If that’s the current reality, political orientation may be more important to identify during voir dire than it has been in the past.

O’Brien, E., & Ellsworth, P. (2012). More Than Skin Deep: Visceral States Are Not Projected Onto Dissimilar Others Psychological Science, 23 (4), 391-396 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611432179

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