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Improving working relationships in your ethnically diverse jury

Wednesday, September 11, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

diverse work groupThe study at the heart of today’s post is unusually intriguing. It’s all about train riding, and how increases in negative mood of all passengers occurred as “the percentage of ethnic out-group members aboard their train increased”. We’ve written before about how gender can result in group tensions when group members (male and female) don’t want to “work with all those incompetent women”.

In this study, researchers looked at the concept that “many individuals feel socially isolated and distressed in ethnically diverse settings”. They address the changing demographics of American society and the theory put forth by some researchers that when confronted with ethnic diversity, some people “hunker down” and withdraw socially from the group. This can result in a sense of what researchers call anomie, “a feeling of purposelessness and a lack of shared values”. In addition to anomie, researchers have also identified increases in depressive symptoms, self-reported stress levels, lower trust and belongingness, and higher levels of fear.

Given these negative reactions, the researchers wondered if they could redirect members of ethnically diverse groups to more positive mood through a simple task. Here’s where it gets interesting. They went to an urban train line in Chicago, Illinois and had research participants ride the train for 14 stops. Prior to the train ride, they asked participants to respond to three items on life purpose [these were on a 7-point Likert Scale ranging from absolutely untrue to absolutely true]:

“My life has a clear sense of purpose”

“I have discovered a satisfying life purpose”

“My life has no clear purpose”

Along the way, participants assessed their mood (by rating how “distressed”, “alone” or “afraid”, content”, “sociable” or “at ease”) they felt at each stop along the route. In this study, the researchers found that negative mood (regardless of gender or ethnicity) increased for all passengers as the proportion of ethnic minority passengers rose in the train car.

So. The researchers did a second experiment to see if manipulating life purpose would change this relationship (between negative mood and ethnic diversity). For the second experiment, the measures on the train ride were exactly the same. However, before the 116 participants got on the train, half of them (a group of 58) were asked to complete brief writing tasks with the following prompts:

“What does it mean to have a sense of purpose in life?”

“What is your purpose in life?”

“Where did your sense of purpose come from?” 

The other half of the participants (a second group of 58) were asked to write during the same time period with prompts unrelated to life purpose:

“What was the last movie you saw?”

“Who were all of the characters in the movie?”

“What was the plot of the movie?”

After they had completed their writing tasks, participants were escorted to the train and completed the same tasks those in the first experiment had done. And, it turned out differently. Those who wrote briefly about purpose in the second study, showed less negative mood shift as the ethnic composition of their train car became more diverse. The participants in the second study were not happier, but they reported lower levels of negative mood.

The researchers believe that as the demographic shift in the country continues to proceed, finding ways to decrease this increased negativity will be important. Interestingly, I imagine that the riders on the train were unconsciously experiencing existential questions like “Do I belong here?”, “Do I have a place here?” “Does anyone understand me?” The jury box is meant to be representative of an increasingly diverse society, but this research suggests that what might be at risk is a sense of common purpose. Thankfully, there are a variety of ways to instill a universal theme, and thus enhance the effectiveness of a diverse jury:

Give them a sense of purpose. Talk to them specifically about their purpose as jurors. We’ve talked a lot about the importance of teaching jurors how to deliberate. Talk to them about how their purpose is to deliberate effectively and here’s how.

Focus on the commonly held values and aspirations that we all share, regardless of our backgrounds. Identify the commonalities, the ties that bind us, rather than conflict and the issues that divide.

Casually mention their diversity and how diverse groups have been shown to work together more productively. This will let them know the importance of listening to each other and respecting differences.

Overall, it’s an interesting stretch from commuter trains to jury deliberations. But, it’s one that seems applicable and relevant as we all travel the changes coming to every courthouse around the country.

Burrow AL, & Hill PL (2013). Derailed by Diversity? Purpose Buffers the Relationship Between Ethnic Composition on Trains and Passenger Negative Mood. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin PMID: 23982151

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