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Simple Jury Persuasion: You are loved and cared for

Friday, December 19, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

We are again honored by our inclusion in the ABA Blawg 100 list for 2014. If you value this blog, today is the last day to vote for us here in the Litigation Category.

loved and cared forIs this perhaps the anti-reptile theory? We don’t know, but it is potentially a powerful stealth weapon for cases where your opponent is attempting to frighten jurors into making emotional decisions because they feel threatened. And it is so very simple (and cheap) that you will thank the brain scientists responsible for doing such a complicated study with such simple findings.

In brief, the researchers wondered if there were ways to quiet the brain’s fear center (the amygdala) by priming research participants to feel loved and cared for prior to being threatened. They hooked 42 “healthy individuals” up to fMRIs to study their brain responses when exposed to threatening words or threatening faces. (All of the participants were right-handed and had no history of either neurological injury or psychiatric illness. None were on psychotropic medications.)

Half of the participants were shown “48 pictures of people engaging in caregiving behaviors and enjoying close attachment relationships (e.g., hugging loved ones)” and the other half were shown 48 pictures of household objects. Thus, the first group was primed for feeling loved and cared for while the second group (the control group) received no emotional priming, but merely neutral household objects. Then they were shown 128 word pairs that were threatening or neutral and then 60 sets of faces that were fearful or angry. (In between the word and faces tasks, the participants were re-shown either the “close attachment” pictures again or the household objects again in an effort to “re-prime” them.)

And here is what the researchers found: “participants who viewed secure attachment-related stimuli prior to completing two threat-reactivity tasks showed attenuated amygdala responses to both threatening faces and threatening words”.

In other words, those who saw the photos of other people being loved and cared for felt less threatened and frightened by anxiety-arousing faces and words than those who did not. From a litigation advocacy perspective, this leads to an intriguing (and potentially stealthy) strategy for the trial lawyer facing attempts by opposing counsel to frighten the jurors into emotional decision-making. In other words, if we harbor a feeling that the world is safe and warm, we are more resistant to upset.

Use visual imagery of caretaking and close attachment relationships during case presentation.

Consider visual evidence that repeats this imagery and is consistent with case themes.

Your goal is to remind jurors that they are safe, and thereby reduce their fear and sense of threat. We can’t know if it will work to calm those amygdalas in the jury box, but it is certainly worth a try!

Norman L, Lawrence N, Iles A, Benattayallah A, & Karl A (2014). Attachment-security priming attenuates amygdala activation to social and linguistic threat. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience PMID: 25326039

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