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Simple Jury Persuasion: It’s really pretty black and white….

Friday, January 4, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

BlackWhiteMany of us like to think our opinions on ethical issues are nuanced–and not reactive, knee-jerk black and white perspectives. Many of us would be wrong. The ease with which we are influenced on what we likely consider deeply held and stable values and perspectives would be humorous if it wasn’t so disconcerting.

Researchers are always interested in exploring how we make judgments of moral or ethical issues. And, naturally, they always want to know if they can modify how we respond by making small adjustments in what they present to us. These researchers used the “Heinz” story–a commonly used stimulus in moral dilemma research.

In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer.  There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her.  It was a form of radium that a pharmacist in the same town had recently discovered.  The drug was expensive to make, but the pharmacist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make.  He paid $400 for the radium and charged $4000 for a small dose of the drug.  The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $2000, which is half of what the drug cost.  He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later.  But the pharmacist said, ‘No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from it.’  So Heinz gets desperate and considers breaking into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.

After presenting the dilemma, the researchers asked participants to tell them (using a 7 point Likert scale ranging from very right to very wrong) how right or wrong it would be of Heinz to steal the drug for his wife. Of course, that wasn’t all the researchers did. The Heinz dilemma was presented to the research subjects on a computer screen but in three different ways.

Some participants saw a solid gray frame around the story.

Others saw the story framed with a black and white checkerboard pattern.

And the remaining participants were given a story framed in a blue and yellow checkerboard pattern.

Those who saw the black and white checkerboard pattern gave more extreme responses than did those seeing either the gray or blue/yellow frames. That is, they tended to give either strong “it’s very right” or strong “it’s very wrong” responses. Further, those who saw gray or blue/yellow frames around Heinz’ dilemma gave virtually identical responses (which tended to be very neutral)! It was only the black and white checkerboard pattern that exerted a strange and metaphorical pull on the respondents to give the extreme (very right or very wrong) responses.

A followup study asked for opinions on the morality of six social issues (e.g., pornography, adultery, using drugs, littering, smoking and using profanity). In the second study, the participants were asked for their opinions while having the computer screen sport either a gray frame or a frame with a black and white checkerboard pattern. Again, those who saw black and white checkerboard frames were more extreme in their judgments. The researchers thought perhaps the black and white borders spoke to participants about the need to have a firm opinion one way or the other rather than delivering a more neutral or nuanced (aka “gray”) opinion.

And they go further! The researchers opine that these sorts of presentation issues could be particularly problematic in “contexts that involve judgments of others’ guilt or innocence”. Subtle things such as if the courtroom is tiled in black and white “might unconsciously influence legal actors, leading to biased judgments and decisions”.

Oh dear. You simply cannot be too careful out there. This could perhaps lead to “change of courtroom” motions.

Zarkadi, T., & Schnall, S. (2012). “Black and White” Thinking: Visual Contrast Polarizes Moral Judgment Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.11.012