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Communicating with those who know they are right (even when they are so very wrong)

Monday, September 18, 2017
posted by Douglas Keene

Today’s highlighted research looks at ways to communicate with people who ignore evidence that contradicts their beliefs and values. This tendency is called “dogmatism” and essentially reflects one’s (un)willingness to revise their beliefs when presented with new evidence. And some people simply will not revise their beliefs no matter what the evidence! We’ve all seen it—the self-appointed expert who knows they are right while others are so very wrong. In fact, we’ve seen it so often in pretrial research that we wrote a post on a way to dethrone that self-appointed expert.

This is a very interesting study that may be much more broadly applicable to cherished beliefs in general (e.g., your eating habits, your political opinions, and your beliefs about climate change and evolution) rather than only to religion (which is what these researchers studied). In brief, the researchers looked at what factors drove dogmatism in people who were religious versus those who were not religious.

And they found a strange similarity: Regardless of whether you were in the religious or not-religious group—if you were a critical thinker, you were less dogmatic. But when you factor in moral concerns—the two groups have very different responses.

For religious people, emotional resonance (i.e., something that ‘feels’ right to you) results in more certainty—if a position is more morally correct from their perspective—the more certain they feel.

So, the researchers say, to effectively communicate your information, you should appeal to the religious dogmatist’s sense of moral concern. Identify their strongly held position, and support the way it applies to your case, and emphasize that “wrong is wrong”.

For nonreligious people, a position involving moral concerns actually results in less certainty.

For this group, the researchers say, to effectively communicate your information, you should appeal to the non-religious dogmatists unemotional logic. Reinforce the moral position (to the extent that it is widely held) and offer the evidence and reasoned judgment that everyone wants.

The researchers also say that whether the person was religious or not, the more rigid the individual (whether rigidly religious or rigidly logical)—the less likely the person was to be empathic (i.e., consider the perspectives of others).

From a litigation advocacy perspective, you want to be able to talk to both extremes (the religious dogmatist and the nonreligious dogmatist). Of course in an ideal world, you would not have people with strong dogmatism and/or rigidity on your jury. Since the world of voir dire and jury selection is an imperfect one, you want to build both moral concerns and logic into your case narrative.

This research really focuses on what we have talked about and blogged about for many years. You need to tell a story that resonates with the strongly held beliefs and problem-solving approaches to which jurors relate. Without appearing to pander, talk about moral right and wrong. For the dogmatic and non-religious jurors, go through the evidence that establishes the case. But you can also anchor it to the moral guideposts that the religiously dogmatic rely on, it deepens the connection.

The result of getting it just right is that both personality types will hear you supporting their sensibilities for reaching a verdict.

Friedman, JP Jack AI 2017 What makes you so sure? Dogmatism, fundamentalism, analytic thinking, perspective taking, and moral concern in the religious and nonreligious. Journal of Religion and Health.

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