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A secret weapon for voir dire: Smart people are more curious

Wednesday, March 8, 2017
posted by Rita Handrich

Back in October of 2016, we wrote about a paper by the Cultural Cognition Project on assessing “scientific curiosity”. Here is some of what we said then about what Kahan and his colleagues found by measuring scientific curiosity:

“What they found was that participants who scored higher on the curiosity scale were more likely to choose the story that would disconfirm their preexisting beliefs (that is, it would surprise them) and the participants enjoyed that process of surprise.”

We concluded that 2016 post this way:

From a litigation advocacy perspective, the challenge is to identify  jurors who are curious and enjoy the surprise of learning new things—even when the new information may be in conflict with pre-existing beliefs. This is a subgroup for which we have an increased chance of persuading them to accept change (typically a very difficult task). What we have to do is figure out how to surprise them and we have several blog posts on what happens to our brains when we experience surprise.

So with that backdrop as a reminder, today we bring you a study that is pretty far afield of our usual focus on social science findings with relevance to litigation advocacy. This is a scientific study on genetics that found something unexpected: a personality trait that was related to overall intelligence but actually embedded in the genes. The researchers refer to it as “a molecular genetic overlap” between intellectual ability and curiosity.

You likely know we’ve written a number of times about curiosity and when we like to see that trait in our jurors. The issue is always how to measure curiosity. While Kahan and his colleagues at the Cultural Cognition Project traversed a lengthy route to assessing scientific curiosity—we may not actually have to go to all that trouble.

First, let’s discuss some research vocabulary. What we refer to as curiosity is referred to by researchers as something different. They use the term “openness to experience” (renaming familiar things to make them sound exotic is a proven strategy for getting academic tenure). There are multiple ‘scales’ to measure openness to experience (here’s an example) but typically, they are not appropriate for use in court. Neither, unfortunately, is the Kahan version of a science curiosity scale. Here, however, is an intriguing finding from some molecular geneticists. Scintillating and yet mind-numbing, all in the interest of our blog readers!

Today’s research article:

This molecular genetics research is based on work from a project known as the Cognitive Genomics Consortium (COGENT) and this particular paper was written by a team of more than 60 international researchers who examined the “genes of 35,000 people – measuring the brain function of these participants through tests of learning, memory, and other cognitive function components”. But that is all backdrop so you know just how credible this finding is for us.

“Interestingly, and for the first time, the COGENT researchers also discovered a molecular genetic overlap between cognitive ability and personality. They found that genetic predispositions towards higher cognitive ability were linked to greater “openness to experience.” In order [sic] words, some of the genes that make people more likely to be curious about new ideas and experiences are the same as those that enhance cognitive ability.”

The researchers see this finding (based on a sample of 35,000 people) as instructive for research and treatment for disorders like schizophrenia, autism, and ADHD—and they have plans to expand their study to include more than 100,000 DNA samples. Fortunately, our intentions are less lofty.

We see this as a secret weapon for voir dire. 

How so? If we know that hard-wired into our genes (in this “molecular genetic overlap”), cognitive ability and curiosity go hand in hand—we can use that information to make the quick decisions often required in voir dire and jury selection. We do not need to assess “openness to experience” (or “science curiosity” or even curiosity). All we need to do is look to see who is smart and we will then know we have curious jurors (although, in some cases, we will prefer jurors who are not so smart and therefore, not so curious).

And, as we often say to our clients—especially in rural areas like the far east and west ends of Texas, “smart does not necessarily mean highly educated”. It is typically, however, a lot easier to see or hear “smart” than it is to see or hear “curious” (or open to experiences). So it is a voir dire short cut (which can qualify as a secret weapon).

We would also add in a caveat. There is a difference between those that are merely curious but do not enjoy the analytical process, and those who are both curious and who enjoy thinking and analyzing. We think of this distinction as the difference between jurors who are “high complexity” and “low complexity”.

If your case is very complex, you will want high complexity jurors (who will almost always be curious but also enjoy the process of thinking and analyzing).

If your case is not that complex, or the complexity of the fact pattern works against your case, you will want low complexity jurors who rely more on biases and heuristics (their pre-existing belief systems) to make decisions in cases where they are unfamiliar with the content matter.

We don’t really recommend you go and read this article since we don’t understand much of it and doubt you will either unless you happen to be a molecular geneticist. In this case, we encourage you to trust the interpretation linked to above (which we verified in a few different places like here and here and here). This is a new sort of finding and they have their excitement about it and we have ours. Of course, if you are curious, you can try to understand it!

Trampush, J., Yang, M., Yu, J., Knowles, E., Davies, G., Liewald, D., Starr, J., Djurovic, S., Melle, I., Sundet, K., Christoforou, A., Reinvang, I., DeRosse, P., Lundervold, A., Steen, V., Espeseth, T., Räikkönen, K., Widen, E., Palotie, A., Eriksson, J., Giegling, I., Konte, B., Roussos, P., Giakoumaki, S., Burdick, K., Payton, A., Ollier, W., Horan, M., Chiba-Falek, O., Attix, D., Need, A., Cirulli, E., Voineskos, A., Stefanis, N., Avramopoulos, D., Hatzimanolis, A., Arking, D., Smyrnis, N., Bilder, R., Freimer, N., Cannon, T., London, E., Poldrack, R., Sabb, F., Congdon, E., Conley, E., Scult, M., Dickinson, D., Straub, R., Donohoe, G., Morris, D., Corvin, A., Gill, M., Hariri, A., Weinberger, D., Pendleton, N., Bitsios, P., Rujescu, D., Lahti, J., Le Hellard, S., Keller, M., Andreassen, O., Deary, I., Glahn, D., Malhotra, A., & Lencz, T. (2017). GWAS meta-analysis reveals novel loci and genetic correlates for general cognitive function: a report from the COGENT consortium Molecular Psychiatry, 22 (3), 336-345 DOI: 10.1038/mp.2016.244

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