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Simple Jury Persuasion: Why you don’t want your  trial videos to elicit awe from jurors 

Monday, December 12, 2016
posted by Douglas Keene

child-in-aweWhile you don’t want jurors to think your visual evidence was made by poorly trained technicians—here’s a study that tells us something counter-intuitive that you may find useful (we have).

It may not make obvious sense, but you also don’t want jurors to be blown away (i.e., awed, in wonder, overwhelmed by the majesty of your creation) by the videos you show them as you present a case which has scientific or heavily technical information in it.

For this to make sense to you, try to divide your hypothetical jurors into two groups: those with religious beliefs and those without religious beliefs.

When the religious are awed, they are less likely to believe in science as a credible way to understand the world.

When the non-religious are awed they are more inclined to believe in less credible scientific theories that emphasize order over randomness. [Huh?]

Researchers asked 127 undergraduate students to rate the strength of their religious beliefs, using these questions in the following areas [all based on past research]:

Continuous measures of belief in God (anchored at confident atheist and confident believer), belief in an immortal soul, familial religiosity during childhood, and change in belief in God since childhood (i.e., the degree to which the participant had become a more/less confident atheist/believer since childhood). There was also a binary forced-choice question asking whether participants had ever had an experience that convinced them of God’s existence.

Then, the participants were assigned to watch one of three five-minute videos: a neutral nature video, an awe-inducing clip (i.e., a 5-min montage of nature clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth, composed primarily of grand, panoramic shots of plains, mountains, space, and canyons), or a third clip meant to elicit amusement (a montage of comedic nature clips from the BBC’s Walk on the Wild Side).

After the videos, the participants then answered a 10-item “belief in science” scale, using 6 point Likert scales ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly disagree” (displayed below and taken from Farias et al., 2013).

You will note these are not questions we can ask in voir dire (at least in most courtrooms) so we are glad these researchers asked them not just once but over three separate studies with a total of 701 participants across the studies.

belief-in-science-scale

Across all three studies, the researchers concluded that while awe draws theists away from scientific explanations (and increases their receptiveness to supernatural explanations), their data only tentatively suggests that the opposite is also true— that awe drives the non-religiously inclined toward science. As the researchers put it:

Indeed, it seems that awe attracts non theists to scientific explanations to the extent that science is framed as explicitly providing order and explanation and eschewing the importance of randomness in the process…

From a litigation advocacy perspective, what this study tells us is that you want to pay attention to the videos you show jurors in a case where science and/or scientific explanations are involved. Shoot for ‘easy to watch’ and ‘informative’, rather than ‘blockbuster’. If your video inspires awe, you run the risk of the religious juror attributing the progress or process to supernatural powers (aka God), which may interfere with issues of human error or liability generally.

If you have a complex, science-related case, consider pretrial testing of visual evidence with jurors to see whether it is usefully informative, or whether it crosses in to “awesome blockbuster”.

Farias M, Newheiser AK, Kahane G, & de Toledo Z (2013). Scientific faith: Belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxiety. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49 (6), 1210-1213 PMID: 24187384

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