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2015 conspiracy theoriesAccording to new research with a large sample from all across the United States, the answer is yes! If you have read this blog for long, you know we love a good conspiracy theorist and use their idiosyncratic associations in pretrial research to plug holes in case narratives.

The researchers briefly review the past literature on conspiracy beliefs as reflecting a desire for control of the uncontrollable. Then they wonder if “reaffirming a sense of control” could serve to decrease the strength of the (ostensibly no longer needed) belief in a conspiracy. They designed two studies and we’ll describe only the second since it was based on a US sample rather than a Dutch sample (the source for the first study).

In the second study, the researchers used an as yet unpublished dataset collected in 1999 (N = 1,256; 771 men and 479 women, 6 gender unknown; median age between 35 and 44 years, median level of education was a college degree and median household income was between $40K and $59K) as the world awaited the potentially harmful event known as the Y2K bug. If you don’t have a clear recollection of how frightened people were about this issue, this Time Magazine story describes the reality vividly. Participants were recruited from a number of internet sites (e.g., online experiment pages of several psychological societies, university websites, Yahoo (which was big in 1999) and Y2K relevant websites.

The data was collected in the last three months of 1999 and asked participants about their beliefs on the Y2K bug as well as their perceptions of the government’s trustworthiness and their beliefs in a range of “popular conspiracy theories (e.g., about the Kennedy assassination, about the cover-up of evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, and various others)”. One of the “various other” conspiracy beliefs was the idea that Y2K was “an evil scheme by computer programmers and businesses to make money”.

Here is some of what they found:

Lower education level was associated with stronger belief in four out of five conspiracy theories.

The more the participants trusted the government, the less likely they were to believe in four out of five conspiracy theories.

Those participants who believed in the Y2K conspiracy were also more likely to believe in four out of five other conspiracy theories.

The more threatened participants felt by the Y2K bug, the more likely they were to believe in four out of five conspiracy theories.

The researchers say that when people (in 1999) felt threatened by the Y2K bug, their beliefs in other conspiracy theories were stronger. Yet, those who felt less threatened by the Y2K bug were less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Since this was an old dataset, we cannot tell if those who were threatened by the Y2K bug were thus more likely to believe in conspiracy theories or if those who believed in conspiracies were more likely to see Y2K as a threat. The researchers point out that when things around us are unpredictable (as in uncertainty related to economic downturns, terrorist threats, or even climate change), beliefs in conspiracy theories increase. They see their study as validating the idea that our need for control is closely coupled with our tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, what this says is if there are conspiracy beliefs that arise based on your case narrative, you need to address those concerns, but you also need to find ways to give jurors a sense of control so they are less afraid and less in need of their conspiracy beliefs to help them sort out what happened. The fear of the unknown will drive many anxious people toward any convenient explanation, even if it has no foundation. Reassure them, and wild conjecture diminishes.

van Prooijen, J., & Acker, M. (2015). The Influence of Control on Belief in Conspiracy Theories: Conceptual and Applied Extensions Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29 (5), 753-761 DOI: 10.1002/acp.3161


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mexican-immigration1Donald Trump unleashed a divisive furor earlier this summer when he announced his candidacy for President while referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers.

“I don’t see how there is any room for misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the statement I made on June 16th during my Presidential announcement speech,” Trump wrote, adding, “What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”

Trump’s comments resulted in multiple allegations of racism and being “tone deaf” to the impact of his words on the listening audience. More recently, Gallup published a survey (a random sample of 508 Hispanics aged 18 and older living in all 50 states and the District of Columbia) showing that immigration status is tied to discrimination among Hispanics. It is well worth your time to review their entire report.

About 10% of US Hispanics (those born in the US and those born in other countries but now living in the US) report discrimination in the past month at their place of work, in dealings with the police, in healthcare, and in bars or restaurants. Slightly fewer (7%) say they felt discriminated against while shopping. Overall, at least 25% of Hispanics have felt discriminated against in at least one of these situations.

There are significantly different experiences with discrimination between those Hispanics who are US-born and those born outside the US. Those born outside the US are more likely to say they have experienced discrimination in each of the situations listed above (work, police, healthcare, bars and restaurants and shopping).

Foreign-born Hispanics are more likely to say they were treated less fairly at their workplace (18%) than US-born Hispanics (5%). Foreign-born Hispanics are five times more likely (15%) than US-born Hispanics (3%) to report discrimination due to ethnicity while receiving healthcare. Their reports of discrimination when dealing with police are much closer, with 8% of US-born Hispanics reporting discrimination compared to 12% of foreign-born Hispanics.

The National Academy of Sciences published a 400 page report on Sept. 21, detailing a huge effort to examine how well recent immigrants to the US are assimilating compared with those of previous eras. For a summary of the report, the New York Times has a worthwhile article about it. The conclusions are interesting and for the most part, reassuring. Among the more well-educated immigrants (such as those from Asia and Europe), educational attainment, identification with American culture, learning of English, and low crime rates prevailed. For Hispanic immigrants who typically come from educationally and economically impoverished circumstances, the same pattern is seen, but education and professional careers lag behind due to having started way behind. Researchers found that English is a struggle for most immigrants (especially those with lower education levels), but kids of the third generation (their parents were born in the US) for the most part don’t speak the language of the immigrant grandparents. They speak English.

In an odd twist, immigrants are far less likely to break the law than US citizens! By a factor of nearly 1:4, immigrants stay out of trouble far more successfully than most Americans. In fact, by that third generation mentioned above, the crime rates rise to levels similar to the general US frequencies. And finally, these patterns of success and assimilation are consistent with previous studies. There is no ‘new crisis’ on the borders. The problem there is attributed to immigrants, but in fact, it is due to drug runners on both sides of the border, a population that does not reflect the immigrant community at large.

We live and often work in Texas and the suspicion directed toward Hispanic parties in litigation is often a factor. We regularly hear “are they legal?” or other racist statements like “those Mexicans will do whatever you tell them to do”. If they are told a jury would not know if “they were legal”, the tendency is for them to presume that they are illegal, and awards plummet. Interestingly, this stands in contrast to a medical negligence case we worked on in Chicago five years ago. After the group deliberations were largely over (resulting in a very large award, later mirrored in the verdict of the trial court), the mock jurors were asked whether they had any thoughts about whether the mother of the child who was born following a botched delivery, was in the US legally or not. The jurors all assumed that she was here illegally. The assumption was so strong it didn’t even come up in the conversation. The difference is, that in Chicago 5 years ago, jurors didn’t care what her status was. In border states especially, immigration status is not likely to be ignored.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, the uphill battle Hispanics tell Gallup they experience is akin to what we see in the suspicion of our mock jurors to parties of Hispanic origin. We’ve seen cases of blatant medical malpractice resulting in permanent and devastating injuries to children, the death of two children in a horrible fire caused by a faulty product, and the untimely death of a parent due to a lack of attention from healthcare professionals. All were horrible situations. And for each one, questions about their legal status drove down damages awarded.

In other words, it isn’t just Donald Trump. It’s probably many of us and you need to pay attention to how racial bias emerges when race/ethnicity is not salient to your case.


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Climate changeWe blogged recently on how to talk about climate change without eliciting automatic (knee jerk) negative reactions from listeners. Shortly before that post, we blogged about scientific consensus on climate change as a gateway belief to persuasion. So we were happy to see a wonderfully clear writeup on the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication’s survey on American beliefs about climate change over at the Sociological Images blog.

The Yale researchers asked 13,000 Americans whether they thought the climate was changing and what they thought was causing climate change (if it indeed existed). They found that responses clustered in six separate types. Here’s how Sociological Images described those types [as defined by the Yale group]:

• The Alarmed (18%) – believe climate change is happening, have already changed their behavior, and are ready to get out there and try to save the world

• The Concerned (33%) – believe it’s happening, but think it’s far off or isn’t going to affect them personally

• The Cautious (19%) – aren’t sure if it’s happening or not and are also unsure whether it’s human caused

• The Disengaged (12%) –  have heard the phrase “climate change,” but couldn’t tell you the first thing about it

• The Doubtful (11%) – are skeptical that it’s happening and, if it is, they don’t think it’s a problem and don’t think it’s human caused

• The Dismissive (7%) – do not believe in it, think it’s a hoax

What is truly wonderful is they offer an interactive map so you can see how beliefs about climate change vary by state and even by county. While some might say this shows how different our beliefs are about climate change—one commenter at the blog says it shows how similarly we (for the most part) feel on the issues. It is well worth your time to take a look at Sociological Images post of the highlights of the Yale study and then, if you want to know more, take a look at the Yale site itself for the complete writeup.


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five minutesThere are many things we read and discard rather than sharing them (and our take on them) with you, but other things we read and grin and think you might want to know. We’ve described these before as odd facts for sharing over drinks or dinner or around the office. It isn’t the most pivotal research we’ve read, but it is usually amusing. These are not the really “important” things, but they might make you grin and result in others looking at you with awe (or at least curiosity).

Altered consciousness using the person next to you (if they will cooperate)

Tina Fey and Steve Martin did this in a fairly unmemorable movie, but only for five minutes. However, if you want to go beyond “rewarding” someone with five minutes of uninterrupted eye contact, you can actually experience “dissociation and hallucinations”. Is that cool or what? The lights must be dim to better bring on a “natural” altered state and if you choose to question whether this is a real study, the citation is at the bottom of this post.

An easy test to see if your new friend is secretly a psychopath

We’ve written before about psychopaths but never seen such a quick-and-dirty test to see if your new friend is someone from whom you want to quickly distance yourself. According to a new study from researchers at Baylor University, people with psychopathic tendencies are less likely to be “affected by contagious yawning”. Yes. You know how when someone yawns and then you yawn back? It’s contagious. Except, the act itself is apparently based in empathy (which the psychopath does not have). The researcher cautions us to NOT presume that “if you yawn and someone else doesn’t, the other person is a psychopath”.

Another way to tell if someone is suicidal

In 2012, we wrote up a study that seemed strange to us on being able to simply look at someone’s face and determine if they were suicidal. Here’s another one where they look at blood tests to assess changes in genes that appear to indicate suicidal thoughts. According to a press release, a questionnaire and blood test together predicted with 92% accuracy which of 108 men receiving psychiatric treatment would develop suicidal feelings over the next year. That is pretty accurate.

Fool people into thinking you are younger than you really are (online anyway)

We’ve all heard the saying “no one knows you’re a dog on the internet”—although, we told you back in 2012 that common wisdom really isn’t true. But this is a way to fool people online into thinking you are younger than your real age. LOL is often used as internet shorthand for “laughing out loud”. By old people anyway. Researchers analyzed Facebook posts for how people expressed laughter and as it turned out, LOL is used by old folks. If you want to be seen as young and tuned in—remove LOL from use and write “haha” or “hehe” instead. Read the researchers blog post here.

Strangers in your mirror and Donald Trump in your refrigerator?

Here are two odd things. One, if you ever see a stranger (who closely resembles you) in your mirror—there’s a name for that: Capgras syndrome for ones own mirror image. A recent publication highlights a case study of a man who came to believe the reflection in the mirror was someone else who lived behind the mirror glass (because he talked to the stranger and the man knew an awful lot about him). And if that isn’t weird enough for you—did you hear about the woman who saw Donald Trump in her refrigerator? Apparently it was pretty shocking for her when she opened a new tub of spreadable butter and saw Donald Trump’s face on her butter. Researchers call this “pareidolia”—it’s when we see familiar patterns that really do not exist or when we see faces in random patterns. They say it’s like the people who see Jesus or the Virgin Mary in their food. Somehow we think the Donald would like joining this small but highly regarded group.

Caputo, G. (2015). Dissociation and hallucinations in dyads engaged through interpersonal gazing Psychiatry Research, 228 (3), 659-663 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.04.050


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kinsey-scaleIllustrating this post is the Kinsey Scale of Sexual Behavior. As you can see, the scale asks people to describe themselves sexually on a scale ranging from “exclusively heterosexual behavior” to “exclusively homosexual behavior”. In the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s emergence into the public eye, there’ve been many articles about gender identity and sexual preference as people attempt to sort out how a hyper-masculine Olympian has always felt like a woman on the inside.

A well-regarded polling company ( decided to ask 1,632 adults in Britain to simply place themselves on the Kinsey scale. They made some interesting discoveries about age and sexual identity.

72% of the British public identifies as “completely heterosexual” and 4% identify as “completely homosexual” while 19% say they are somewhere in between. (Kinsey classified the in-betweeners as “bisexual in varying degrees”.) Of those in the 19% in-between group, 15% are closer to the heterosexual end, 2% place themselves directly in the middle, and 2% are closer to the homosexual end of the scale.

However, reports that “with each generation, people see their sexuality as less fixed in stone”. They say the results for 18-24 year olds are particularly striking with “43% placing themselves” in the “in between” areas and 52% placing themselves at one end or the other. In this group 46% say they are “completely heterosexual” and 6% say they are “completely homosexual”.

The authors say that people (regardless of age) now accept the idea that sexual orientation is on a continuum (60% of heterosexuals and 73% of homosexuals support this idea) rather than a completely binary choice. They see this as indicative of an increasing open-mindedness to sexuality.

The full results of the study can be seen here. In the first URL, you can see from the intensity of the comments that this entire idea remains one which inflames the senses for some people.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is important information of which to be aware. While Caitlyn Jenner’s very public transition has precipitated a national (and perhaps international) discussion on sexual identity and sexual orientation, the bottom line is that younger jurors may well have more fluid definitions of their individual sexual orientation. It’s one more thing to remain cognizant of as you present cases where sexual identity may or may not be an issue.


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