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Simple Jury Persuasion: Compelling Counter-Stereotypic Conditions

Wednesday, January 22, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

surprising lucyBack in early 2010, we blogged about the impact of surprise on the brain. In a nutshell, surprise makes you stop and look at situations with a new perspective. When in the courtroom, surprise can make you question your assumptions and preconceived beliefs about the case. And that is precisely what you want when your client is the “other”–that is, when your client is elderly, physically disabled, morbidly obese, hearing or visually impaired, a different ethnicity or culture, differently attired, practices a religion that is seen as “different” by the community, or any other difference that will make a difference to jurors hearing the case. 

While it is politically correct to pretend we are unbiased against those who appear externally different from us, study after study after study shows it just isn’t true. But we respect objectivity, so we want to believe we are like that. (And while it can be true, it doesn’t normally happen without conscious effort.) So we were glad to see an article over at PLOSone showing that surprise can reduce prejudicial beliefs! And this is research telling us how to promote tolerance toward not just a single specific out-group, but toward multiple out-groups. Researchers refer to this ability to transfer tolerance from one specific out-group to multiple out-groups as “generalization” and to date, it (i.e., the holy grail of generalization to reduce prejudice across multiple out-groups) has been elusive. We are surprised (!) this work hasn’t had more press coverage in the litigation arena. However, it is research done in the UK (five laboratory studies) and followed up with a field test of the findings in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia–an area characterized by violent ethnic conflicts. While it is a hotbed of sectarian intolerance, research done there doesn’t get much press. Perhaps that is why it has not been applied to litigation. Until now.

The research is intriguing because the straightforward research design tested consistently reduced prejudice across six studies and with multiple out-groups (e.g., the elderly, disabled, asylum seekers, HIV patients and gay men). Not only did it reduce prejudice (and increase tolerance) during the study itself, the effect persisted outside the laboratory experiments! To make it even better, you can implement this strategy at no cost–other than spending some time (which is crucial to success in any event) considering how it could be applied to your case with your particular “other” client.

The researchers describe research related to “multiple social categorization”. You might think of our typical social categorization as “us versus them”. This sort of categorization has resulted in multiple conflicts and intolerance. What researchers are finding is that when you are forced to think of multiple ways in which you are affiliated with “them”–your attitudes toward the different other become more positive and tolerant. This is particularly effective (according to the researchers) when the multiple categories appear inconsistent with each other. They list rich student, overweight model, female firefighter, or male midwife as exemplar categories that surprise us due to apparent inconsistency.

This apparent inconsistency causes what the researchers describe as a cognitive “gear shift” as the perceiver focuses on individual characteristics of the male midwife to help resolve the perceived inconsistency. Here’s how the authors explain it:

“being compelled to think counter-stereotypically about others should induce a thinking style characterized by the tendency to abandon established routines (i.e., stereotyping), engage in generative thought, and consider individuating attitudes, regardless of the specific target group at hand.”

In other words, that “gear shift” switches the perceiver from stereotypes and biases about the “other”, to exploration of the actual individual and their unique characteristics. And that, as you might imagine, reduces bias. So. How do you cause that cognitive gear shift? By compelling counter-stereotypical thought.

Researchers simply asked the participants to generate descriptors of people that seemed to not “go together”. The participants came up with the overweight model, rich student, female firefighter, and other examples listed earlier. The descriptive pairs seem somewhat oxymoronic.

The researchers believe that when you are primed with counter-stereotypical tasks, it creates that “gear shift” and you approach problem-solving with a more creative and indirect strategy. They believe their research shows it is possible to actually “affect variables that are resistant to change such as values, personal beliefs, and attitudes by changing people’s cognitive styles”. They further opine that the generation of five examples of counter-stereotypic categories (with no specific target group defined) resulted in the generalized prejudice reduction seen in multiple studies. What you are changing is not “what” the person thinks (i.e., the content of their stereotypes) but “how” they think. 

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is not the easiest work to implement because you cannot readily give jurors a paper and pencil task to identify counter-stereotypical categories that describe people. This research talks about how to increase tolerance and reduce bias across multiple out-groups. Theoretically, we can likely agree this is a positive goal. Practically, however, your goal is to reduce bias against your specific client in this specific case. So here’s what we suggest:

Imagine an opening statement that talks about your own surprise/confusion/ embarrassment to realize that the person wasn’t only “beauty queen”, but actually a “Ivy League valedictorian super model”. Or not a retired grocer” but a retired grocer who teaches immigrant kids how to read”. Life is full of surprises, some good and some disappointing. Identify a counter-stereotypical category that describes your client or the opposition. Be careful that the description you choose for your witness or client is not one with negative connotations (e.g., “charming liar”). Then describe your client with that counter-stereotypical label. By repeatedly encouraging jurors to “shift that cognitive gear”, you are reducing bias against your client and potentially helping jurors consider facts and evidence rather than bias and fears.

Vasiljevic M, & Crisp RJ (2013). Tolerance by surprise: evidence for a generalized reduction in prejudice and increased egalitarianism through novel category combination. PloS one, 8 (3) PMID: 23483895


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