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Fringe dwellers are very, very certain of their rightness

Friday, November 1, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

extremismThis comes as no surprise to us. We routinely look at mock jurors with extreme views on various issues as unpredictable and thus, dangerous for our case. We think of the extremist as dwelling on the “fringe” of beliefs held by the majority. They are often conspiracy devotees and “hear” facts through a nearly impregnable filter that has more to do with their own beliefs than anything being said by the trial attorney.

It isn’t even about the matter at issue. It is, instead, about the listener.

Researchers in this study asked 527 American members of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to respond to a series of questionnaires about 9 controversial political issues (e.g., health care, illegal immigration, abortion, government role in helping the needy, voter IDs, rate of income tax, torture to obtain information from terrorists, affirmative action, and the relationship between national and state laws and religious beliefs). Participants were asked two questions on each political issue: their attitude toward the issue (measured on a Likert scale ranging from a strong liberal position to a strong conservative position) and then they were asked how much more correct they thought their belief on that issue was in comparison with other people’s beliefs. Participants also completed a measure of dogmatism.

Participants who felt most superior for beliefs in voter ID cards, taxes and affirmative action scored higher in the conservative direction. Those who felt most superior for beliefs in government aid for the needy, torturing terrorists, and basing laws on religion scored higher in the liberal direction.

However, people at the extremes of the political spectrum (whether liberal or conservative) felt most superior about their beliefs.

In other words, it is not just liberals and not just conservatives who feel superior in their beliefs. Both can. What matters is not the direction of your beliefs but the extremity of them. The researchers point this out clearly:

“People at the extreme ends of ideological positions may be strongly motivated to maintain their viewpoints, and the fact their views lie at the extremes makes it less likely they will consider alternative perspectives.”

This is what we have seen repeatedly in our pretrial research. We do not necessarily know how a person with extreme views will react to our case narrative, but we do know whatever their reaction is, it will likely be extreme, rigid, closed-minded, and resistant to other’s pleas to consider alternate perspectives. Many is the time I have observed during jury selection “we can’t predict how that person will vote in deliberations, but s/he will be serious trouble for one side or the other”. These people do not negotiate well with others. And, in our experience, that makes for an unpredictable juror for both sides of the aisle. The caveat to this, of course, is if your goal is a hung jury. Then the extremists add sparks, and often, volatility to jury deliberations.

Toner K, Leary MR, Asher MW, & Jongman-Sereno KP (2013). Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority. Psychological Science PMID: 24096379

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