Simple Jury Persuasion: Font Choice and Bias
Does font choice really reduce confirmation bias? [That’s the bias where we simply look for confirmation of what we already believe to be true.] New research says it could. What might that mean for jury deliberations?
Last year we saw research showing that when students are asked to study with worksheets containing more difficult to read fonts–they learn more. The “difficult to read” fonts used were Comic Sans Italicized, Monotype Corsiva and Haettenschweiler. While not outlandish like some highly stylized fonts, all of these fonts slowed students down enough so they ultimately received better grades. [The easy-to-read font used was Arial.]
New research (just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology) tells us again that if your font is more difficult to decipher and thus promotes careful and analytic processing, confirmation bias is reduced. In other words, the reader takes a more comprehensive look at opposing views and ultimately makes less biased decisions.
Wow. This research was written up in Pacific Standard Magazine by the ever-creative Tom Jacobs. Tom suggests Congress pass a bill mandating all proposed legislation be printed in Comic Sans font. We have a different idea about what this research suggests but first, here is what the researchers did:
Participants were instructed to read some information about a suspect charged with a crime and then told they would be asked to decide on a verdict given the information at their disposal. Some were asked to provide their responses within a three minute time frame and others were shown a list of words (simple words like guitar, eagle glasses, mixer, ocean, table, parade, window, and baseball) and asked to keep those words in mind as they would be asked about them later. Others were not asked to engage in either of these conditions.
Then they were asked to read testimony from the suspect’s school psychologist. The testimony read alternately described the suspect positively or negatively. Then they read objective facts about the case which were purposely ambiguous as to guilt. The case facts were printed in either a “fluent” font [i.e., easy to read] or a “disfluent” font [i.e., not easy to read].
Rather than using varying fonts as the researchers in the 2011 study had done, these researchers messed around with how easy the copy was for the participants to read.
“In the fluent condition, the facts were written in a Times New Roman 16-point font. In the disfluent conditions, participants received a document written in a 12-point Times New Roman font that had been photocopied recursively three times on the lowest contrast setting until the text was significantly degraded, but still readable, which has been shown to induce analytic thinking via disfluency.”
Then the participants gave their verdict [guilty or not guilty] and were also asked to rank the certainty of their verdict. What the researchers found is pretty amazing.
When the participants read the “fluent” font, they were more likely to offer a biased verdict (based on whether they had read a negative or positive description from the school psychologist).
When they read the “disfluent” font, they were less likely to offer a biased verdict–that is, their verdict was not as related to whether the description they had read was negative or positive. Interestingly, those participants with time limits and memory tasks were also more likely to respond in a biased fashion. The researchers thought this showed you need to focus on the task rather than using cognitive resources for other demands at the same time.
The researchers sum up their findings in a single [very powerful] sentence:
“Disfluency may offer an opportunity for better judgment and discourse between opposing positions, ultimately giving what was once an over-looked message, a chance to be seen.”
This research speaks to the preparation of visual evidence. We’ve written before on whether you want your jurors to think or not to think. In essence, this research speaks to the same thing.
If you want jurors to think, present your visual evidence in a slightly more difficult to process font.
If you want them to decide based on their pre-existing beliefs make that font as easy to read as possible.
There is often a lot of grumbling among lawyers when key documents are produced by the opposition with degradation due to age, multiple faxings, copyings, or a faded duplicate. Who knew that it would actually be to the advantage of the opposition when the document is thus rendered “disfluent”? It’s scary to think about presenting demonstratives in a font that’s harder to read–it may be scarier to consider allowing jurors to make decisions based on biases you may not know they have.
Keep their focus on the evidence– make it harder to read!
Ivan Hernandez, & Jesse Lee Preston (2012). Disfluency disrupts the confirmation bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.08.010