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The Sensitivity to Mean Intentions (SeMI) Model

Wednesday, February 12, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

why you gotta be so meanThere are some research models whose names seem silly, or at least named for a Taylor Swift song. Oddly enough, there is a large body of research on those who are “habitually sensitive toward victimization” and it turns out they tend to be uncooperative and immoral in “socially uncertain situations”. Apparently, the suspicion and mistrust generated when you are constantly on high-alert for mistreatment results in negative behavior and expectations. You might think of this as a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, which is a big problem for these people, because their victimization is also very real.

This article begins with a few descriptive sentences that eloquently describe the internal experience of the person who is “habitually sensitive toward victimization”.

“Trusting someone who should not have been trusted is certainly an aversive experience for everyone; however, people differ in how strongly they worry about becoming the victim of other people’s malicious intentions. And the more people are anxious about ending up being cheated, deceived, and exploited, the more they are sensitive to environmental or social cues associated with untrustworthiness, which, in turn, explains why these people also tend to behave uncooperatively in socially uncertain situations.”

This isn’t really a research article as much as a summary of where the research on the model is currently and where it needs to travel next. We are going to focus on an issue the authors identify as a “suspicious mindset” or “victim sensitivity”.

The authors describe a 10-item measure of “justice sensitivity” which allows one to categorize people with different levels of “sensitivity to mean intentions” through the use of questions such as the following:

It bothers me when others receive something that ought to be mine.

It takes me a long time to forget when I have to fix others’ carelessness.

It makes me angry when I am treated worse than others.

I can’t easily bear it when others profit unilaterally from me.

Our stereotype of “victims” is that they suffer silently. Counter-intuitively, on this scale, people who score high in victim sensitivity tend to “protest and retaliate more strongly” when they are treated unfairly. Of course, most people would reasonably reflect annoyance by the behaviors on the scale, but some people do so more intensely than others. Further, victim sensitivity as measured on this scale reflects concern for the self and not a more global concern of justice for all. Instead, victim sensitivity is related to “jealously, neuroticism, Machiavellianism, paranoia, and a belief in an unjust world, and it predicts uncooperative and even immoral behavior inside and outside the laboratory.”

What is important to know for litigation planning and jury selection is that having high levels of victim sensitivity will mean higher potential for a sudden leap to distrust and suspiciousness (and the resulting inability of the person to reconsider this initial judgment). This could result in an unpredictable negative view of the case facts. It is reasonable to see highly sensitive people as being hyper-critical of anyone who is viewed as victimizing others through their conduct.

Those high in victim sensitivity have what the researchers term a “suspicious mindset” which is negatively related to the willingness to forgive. These are people who would judge harshly and turn a deaf ear toward explanations for behavior.

They will be more likely to “see” cues of untrustworthiness in others but they are less likely to be accurate in their identification of untrustworthiness than those who are not so sensitive to victimization. That is, people who expect to be treated badly tend to see mean people everywhere and therefore exhibit a bias to “see” untrustworthiness where none exists.

It’s an intriguing area for mock trial research. The items on the justice sensitivity scale are not particularly objectionable in content/language, but may be seen as inappropriately personal for voir dire or a supplemental juror questionnaire. The challenge in trial planning may be to find questions or life experiences that correlate well with scores on the scale. For instance, when “The X Files” was a popular show, it also flagged people who were conspiracy theorists and (likely) these kinds of sensitivities. Would fans of other shows now popular be similarly sensitive? Would it correspond to differences between those who live in the exurbs versus the urbanites? Those who have had a bad experience in traffic court or with an insurance claim?

The researchers conclude that “victim sensitivity” represents a “latent fear of being exploited”. We routinely use some questions in our pretrial research that we think tap into that fear but will be adding a few new ones in an attempt to refine our ability to identify those potential jurors who could turn out to be very problematic when it comes to cooperative deliberating. Stay tuned!

Gollwitzer, M., Rothmund, T., & Süssenbach, P. (2013). The sensitivity to mean intentions (SeMI) model: Basic assumptions, recent findings, and potential avenues for future research. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 415-426 DOI: 10.1111/spc3.12041


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