Tell me it isn’t so! ‘Violinists are still kind of mean and unpredictable’
In one of my previous careers, I provided psychotherapy for members of our local philharmonic orchestra. I remember a quiet, introverted and socially awkward viola player who was describing the despicable treatment she endured at the hands of a fellow musician. I inquired as to what she thought the motivation might be for this behavior. “Well,” she said in a whisper, “she is a violinist”. Apparently, the meanness and anti-social behavior of violinists was well-known among string musicians. This was news to me and I wondered if viola players tended toward the socially avoidant and extremely sensitive.
And now, decades later, I discover some new research that says perhaps my quiet and sensitive viola player knew something tried and true about personality and choice of musical instrument. The study was completed by Hungarian researchers and was examining the notion that we (as humans) are motivated to punish those that transgress even if we were not personally affected by the misbehavior in question. (We’ve written about this phenomena before.)
In this paper, the researchers wanted to see if varying groups of people would punish differently based on the same information as to bad behavior. So they recruited teachers, police cadets and high school students who were then asked to watch videos of two professional female violinists.
They were told the musicians were in a competition, and the winner would be awarded a coveted recording contract. “By design,” the researchers write, “one violinist’s musical performance was better, according to professional standards, than the other.”
After watching the performances, half the participants were given positive information about both players’ personal behavior. For the other half, “the more talented violinist was described as morally disrespectful,” the researchers write. Specifically, they were told by one of her professors that she mistuned her fellow students’ instruments and sabotaged their scores just before concerts.
With this information in mind, all participants then voted for the “one violinist that they considered worthy of career advancement.” The researchers found the accusations of immoral conduct cost the miscreant violinist votes, but this effect was not consistent across the board.
You might guess that the police officers in training would be the strongest moral punishers of the three groups. But you would be wrong. As it turned out, high school students and police officers in training really didn’t care much that one violinist had behaved badly. Only the schoolteachers cared and chose to punish the ‘bad’ violinist even though they found her to be the superior musician. (Of course they did, since the other violinist had a badly tuned instrument!)
It leads one to question the morality of police cadets and high schoolers on the surface of things. But really, this is a study of context. The teachers are prone to disciplining cheaters (and meanies) since they must maintain control in the classroom. High schoolers are attuned to the frequency of cheating (since it happens a lot) and cadets are learning to apply the law–and not to allow emotion to color your choices about behavior.
It applies to jurors too. Context can be powerful. When we hear “it may be legal but it sure isn’t right”, we know our jurors are disgusted. We also know they do not see the behavior as rising to the level they see as essential to punish according to the law. And then we get to work on determining how to direct or diffuse their moral indignation. You want to answer both aspects of the common juror refrain “it may be legal but it sure isn’t right”. Show them it isn’t right. Show them it isn’t legal. Give them facts to buttress their feelings in deliberations.
Sometimes what feels wrong is still legal conduct. That is unsatisfying to jurors, but they usually want to track the law. But sometimes the law works as it should, and what is wrong is also illegal. When that happens, jurors become engaged on a very personal level. Let them know: “This one isn’t right AND it isn’t legal.”
Clavien C, Tanner CJ, Clément F, & Chapuisat M (2012). Choosy moral punishers. PloS one, 7 (6) PMID: 22720012