Simple Jury Persuasion: The SPOT (Spontaneous Preference for Own Theories) effect
It’s been a while since we’ve had a new cognitive bias to share with you. Previously we’ve blogged on many different biases and here are a handful of those posts. Today’s research paper combines three biases—two of which we’ve blogged about before: the better-than-average effect, confirmation bias and also, the endowment effect. The endowment effect is the “(irrational) added value” we place on things just because they belong to us and not to someone else.
So, today’s research was described over at BPS Digest (a reliable source for accurate summaries), and it’s a bit odd. For the sake of brevity, here’s what BPS Digest says (they are based in England so they don’t spell everything like we do in the States) as they describe the study (we added emphasis to important points with bold font):
Across three studies, the researchers asked hundreds of participants to imagine a fictional planet in a distant solar system, inhabited by various creatures some of which are predators and others prey. Focusing on two of the creatures on the planet – Niffites and Luppites – the participants were told to imagine that they (that is, the participant himself or herself) held one of two different beliefs: Some were told that they had a theory that the Niffites were the predators and the Luppites were their prey, while others were told to assume that somebody called “Alex” had this theory. This background scenarios was chosen to be neutral and unconnected to existing beliefs, and the hypothetical “ownership” of the theory by some of the participants was intended to be as superficial and inconsequential as possible.
Next, the researchers presented the participants with a series of seven facts relevant to the theory. The first few were mildly supportive of the theory (e.g. Niffites are bigger), but the last few provided strong evidence against (e.g. Luppites have been observed eating the dead bodies of Niffites). After each piece of evidence, the participants were asked to rate how likely it was that the theory was true or not.
The way the participants interpreted the theory in the light of the evidence was influenced by the simple fact of whether they’d been asked to imagine the theory was theirs or someone else’s. When it was their own theory, they more stubbornly persisted in believing in its truth, even in the face of increasing counter-evidence.
This spontaneous bias toward one’s own theory was found across the studies: when different names were used for the creatures (Dassites and Fommites); whether testing happened online or in groups in a lecture room; regardless of age and gender; and also when an additional control condition stated that the theory was no one’s in particular, as opposed to being Alex’s. The last detail helps clarify that the bias is in favour of one’s own theory rather than against someone else’s.
The ownership of the theory made the difference in belief persistence. We are reluctant to discard ideas we think of as our own, even when the evidence contradicts it.
From a litigation advocacy perspective, we have talked a lot about how facts don’t matter (still true in 2017 as our most recent post on this topic explains) when it comes to personal beliefs and emotional reactions of jurors. In their paper, the authors of the SPOT effect research say this bias cuts across gender and age and that it “reflects a pro-self as opposed to anti-other bias”. They also comment on how easy it was to create allegiance to a theory (“phenomena that require surprisingly little to bring about”)—just by saying “I have a theory”–participants stood by the beliefs even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
We wonder how much stronger (and emotional) this bias would be if those core values and beliefs held by individual jurors were challenged in case narrative. While this is a new bias just named, it is why (for years now) we have recommended that our client-attorneys try to avoid hot-button issues and instead focus on incorporating universal values into their case narrative.
You are less likely to get knee-jerk reactivity from jurors who have polarized political positions when you use universal values to frame your case narrative (and stay away from unnecessary controversies).
Gregg AP, Mahadevan N, & Sedikides C (2017). The SPOT effect: People spontaneously prefer their own theories. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 70 (6), 996-1010 PMID: 26836058