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Does priming influence behavior of even the “bad boys”?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

Bad-boy-ClubPriming is the idea that subtle cues and reminders can powerfully influence behavior. You hear about it in studies where women reminded of their gender perform less well on math problems. You may be skeptical of the power of priming on your own behavior. And certainly on the behavior of the hardened criminal. Alas, you may as well get used to it because even the behavior of those in maximum security prisons is influenced by priming.

Researchers asked 182 inmates from a maximum-security prison in Switzerland to flip coins (privately) and report the results. Prior to the coin flips, the researchers asked the inmates a question:

Half of the inmates were asked: “What were you convicted for?”

The other half were asked: “How many hours per week do you watch television on average?”

The intent was to prime half of the inmates with their criminal identity and to not prime the others. The inmates were to flip ten coins and record the results on paper. They were allowed to keep every coin they reported as coming up “heads”. This was an incentive to cheat and since they were unobserved, they could avoid punishment or censure. However, since the researchers know the normal distribution of coin flips, they would be able to identify dishonest reporting.

On average, the inmates asked about TV viewing reported heads for 60% of the coin flips. (The researchers say this is “significantly above chance and approximates 20% of misreported coin flips.)

On average, the inmates asked about their reason for incarceration, reported heads for 66% of the coin flips. (The researchers say this corresponds to 32% of misreported coin flips.)

The researchers then used administrative records at the prison to identify inmates rule violations (e.g., aggression, use of illegal drugs, or weapon possession) and found rule violations correlated with the amount of lying in the coin toss task.

In other words, say the researchers, priming the inmates with their criminal history made them more dishonest in their report of the coin toss. You may wonder just how different that 6% difference really is between prisoners primed to remember they are criminals and those not primed to recall their criminality. So did the researchers.

So, they asked members of the general population to flip coins also and discovered that found that the non-inmates lied also, but not as much as the inmates. The non-inmates reported the coin came up heads 56% of the time. So the inmates who were asked the TV question were actually closer in reporting coin toss results to non-incarcerated participants than they were to the inmates asked about their criminal history.

So reminding a “bad boy” that he is a bad boy, promotes bad boy behavior. Just like reminding a woman that she is female results in poorer performance on math problems. Priming is powerful, no matter how much we want to believe we, individually, are too smart to fall for that. We just fall for it. Over and over again. In the courtroom, you may want to pay attention to efforts of opposing counsel to subtly prime jurors on various aspects of the case and then you can make those efforts visible to the jurors.  You might say things like:

“You know, all of us think we are secretly less gullible than others, and that very belief sets us up to be fooled.”

And then you join them in their gullibility (or susceptibility to priming).

“At first, I truly wanted to believe…”

“For the longest time I clung to the hope that X was true, but finally I had to let it go and accept the facts…”.

Even if you don’t see opposing counsel making efforts to prime jurors’ mindset, it never hurts to use the language above as you present your case. Showing the jurors your thought processes as you evaluate evidence in the case helps them to form their own mental processes (and they will likely mimic your own to a large degree).

Cohn, A., Maréchal, MA, & Noll, T. (2013). Bad Boys: The effect of criminal identity on dishonesty. SSRN Electronic Journal. DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2347260

For the fourth year in a row we have been honored with recognition from the ABA via inclusion in their 2013 list of the Top 100 legal blogs in the country. We work hard to blog consistently even when inundated with work and would appreciate your vote for us at the Blawg 100 site under the LITIGATION category. You will have to register your email just so you can’t vote 47 times. There are many worthwhile law blogs on this list so take some time to peruse. Thanks! Doug and Rita


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