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Archive for the ‘Bias’ Category

atheist symbolBack in 2010, we published an article on atheists and how they are distrusted in the United States. The level of vitriol we saw in the research at that time surprised us. But the number of atheists in this country continues to increase.  Pew Research has just offered a 2016 update on atheists in the United States that shows us the number of those identifying as atheists in the US has “roughly doubled” since 2007. The numbers are still small (currently 3.1% according to Pew) with an additional 4% currently identifying as agnostic (that is up also from 2.4% in 2007). Here are a few of the multiple tidbits Pew offers on atheists in the US as of 2016.

Atheists in the US are more likely to be male (68%) and younger than the overall population (34 compared to 46 for all US adults).

Atheists are also more likely to be white (78% compared to 66% for the general public) and have a college degree (43% compared to 27% of the general public).

About 2/3 of atheists in the US identify as Democrats (69%) and a majority (56%) call themselves political liberals.

While virtually no atheists (1%) say they turn to religion for guidance on questions of right and wrong—roughly a third (32%) look to science for guidance on questions of right and wrong. As a comparison, 44% of US atheists still cite “practical experience and common sense” as their primary guide on questions of right and wrong.

As you might imagine, this article from Pew has more comments than we’ve ever seen on a Pew report (968 at this writing) so it is obviously a topic of extreme interest to readers.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, it is well worth your time to update your awareness of atheists in this country (and on your jury panel). We regularly work on cases where the litigant or the trial team (or both) are deeply religious. For many, there is an immediate sense of disconnect with atheists. They are as misunderstood and mistrusted in much the same way that other socio-cultural minorities (such as gays and lesbians) have been. In contrast, research needs to be conducted on what biases this subgroup might bring into the jury room with them—are they as wary of those who profess their faith as the believers are of them? What do each think of the other? What is the common ground?

The comments section of the Pew report is like a very disturbing focus group with a few rational and erudite comments thrown in! Reading the first 100 or so comments will show you just how strong and knee-jerk the bias against atheists is in the US. If it is not salient to your case, it is certainly a good topic for a motion in limine. And as we have discussed before, if it is salient, it has to be discussed, both for the purposes of inoculation of irrelevant toxic attitudes and for strikes for cause.

Pew Research Center 2016. Ten facts about atheists. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/01/10-facts-about-atheists/

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Jamail depo tx styleSometimes these tidbit posts come around more often than usual—typically it happens when we’ve read a lot that is just not suited for an entire blog post but it made us laugh out loud or peaked our curiosity. Here for you are the last few things that made us look again or laugh uncomfortably.

Millennials are doing job search duties for their parents too

We hear so much bad press on the Millennials but here’s a really sweet article that shows how Millennials are helping out their parents too. The Atlantic has an article on what they describe as “employed and financially independent Millennials who are instead helping their parents find a job”. They are not only teaching their parents the basics of finding a job in 2016 but also using their social media skills and networking skills to find out who might be hiring in their parent’s professional areas of interest. It’s an uplifting and positive take on a generation currently maligned as freeloaders—plus there are some good resources embedded in the article as Millennials talk about what they have done to help Mom or Dad.

Political extremists are less susceptible to the anchoring bias

So here’s a point for the political extremist. If you are a regular reader here you know we tend to de-select the political extremist as just too unpredictable to serve as a juror on most cases. Often, the extremist is characterized as unthinking and knee-jerk in decision-making with stereotypes and biases guiding their thinking. However, new research tells us that political extremists sometimes think carefully about their decisions and are quite confident in their judgments. Here’s the abstract for the article, a blog post by the first author, and a Huffington Post writeup. The complete reference is at the end of this post. It’s an interesting article but we still won’t be choosing them to sit on the vast majority of juries.

Those Joe Jamail deposition tapes are so 1990

It’s been years since we first saw the “Texas style” depositions by Joe Jamail on YouTube. If you have somehow missed watching this epic video, you owe it to yourself to give it a look. You’ll realize just how long it’s been when you see these courtroom transcripts posted by Keith Lee over on Associate’s Mind blog. It’s enough to make one wonder how court reporters maintain their decorum and it certainly says something about how times change. Both of the authors of this fine blog have testified many times as expert witnesses. And one memory stands out prominently in which two lawyers nearly began brawling in the middle of the deposition. It was a good time to have a psychologist and dispute resolution specialist in the room!

What’s the best way to deliver bad news?

When companies downsize (or “right-size”) there are always myriad recommendations on the best way to deliver bad news to those who lose their jobs due to layoffs. Now, new research tells us it isn’t so much what is said when you notify an employee about layoffs as how it is said. Researchers publishing in the Journal of Applied Psychology tell us that when employees are given the information in a way that seems fair to them—their reactions are much less negative. According to them, “fairness” includes process transparency and treating employees with respect. You can read a summary of this article over at Science Daily. and we found a full-text source here.

Brandt MJ, Evans AM, & Crawford JT (2015). The unthinking or confident extremist? Political extremists are more likely than moderates to reject experimenter-generated anchors. Psychological Science, 26 (2), 189-202 PMID: 25512050

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school lunches repulsiveIt’s time for another installment of strange tidbits we’ve gathered as we have read potential articles for blog posts. This week we have information on why you would stick something icky and repulsive into your mouth, online anonymity, bias against homosexuals, and what horrible things can happen should you choose to ‘unfriend’ that person on Facebook who really annoys you.

Disgusting and repulsive is what that is—tell me more!

The popularity of television shows like Fear Factor tells us that we humans are drawn to disgusting and repulsive things. Some researchers (Hsee and Ruan cited below) think our curiosity drives us to risk negative outcomes (much like Pandora). There is a thorough write-up on this article over at Scientific American that is worth your time to review—although it is likely a good idea to not eat while doing so.

You are likely not as anonymous online as you think

Now this is sort of scary. Many of us want to be anonymous online as we go about our daily business. But a new research study says they can identify who you are just by the way you browse the internet. Apparently, each of us creates a “unique digital behavioral signature” and “they” can know way too much about you based on how you wield that electronic mouse or touchpad. Within a half hour of monitoring you, the researchers say they can measure personality characteristics like “openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism”. That’s pretty scary. The researchers appear to be very excited about this and appear to long to sell their strategies to online marketers. [I think these researchers should be denied tenure just on principle.]

How do we feel now about lesbian women and gay men?

There has been a cultural shift underway in the US in attitudes toward homosexuals. Some have wondered if there really is a change underway or if people just feel pressured to express more support for gay men and lesbian women. Now there is research published in a new open access journal called Collabra that says this societal change really has occurred. A team of researchers found that implicit or unconscious bias against lesbians and gays was down 13% in 2013 when compared to 2006. Nearly all demographic groups showed decreases in bias against homosexuals over that 7 year period which suggests the change is not just politically correct but actually real.

You may want to consider alternatives to “unfriending” on Facebook once you read this

Imagine you live in a “sleepy mountain town” with your young spouse and infant child. Then imagine you have been murdered (although your child survived) and no one can figure out who did it because, “everyone” liked you. You don’t really have to imagine since you can read the story of what happened to a young couple after they ‘unfriended’ a woman on Facebook. It’s a sadly bizarre tale of catfishing and loneliness and perhaps some psychopathy. Here’s a quote from the assistant district attorney’s opening statement to the jury:

“This is going to be the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. This is going to be the craziest thing you’ve ever heard. There is nothing in your lives or background that has prepared you to understand the Potter family.”

And to that we say, “Amen”. And we would like also to mention you can ‘unfollow’ rather than ‘unfriend’ to get them out of your timeline but not incite homicidal rage.

Hsee CK, & Ruan B (2016). The Pandora Effect: The Power and Peril of Curiosity. Psychological Science, 27 (5), 659-66 PMID: 27000178

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dormitory bathroomI first heard the term “over-valued belief” back in the mid-1990’s when I worked in forensic rehabilitation with a man adjudicated not guilty by reason of insanity. He had been very ill (psychotic) and very violent when unmedicated (and had killed more than once due to delusional beliefs) but had been in treatment and well-medicated for years when I met him.

One day he confided that he had been late for our treatment group because he couldn’t stop flushing the toilets on his ward. Later I asked him what he meant and he explained that when the State Legislature was in session and voting on bills, he felt he could also “vote” and perhaps sway their opinions. If he flushed the toilet at the right end of the group bathroom it was a vote for the Republican opinion and if he flushed a toilet at the left end of the group bathroom it was a vote for the Democrat perspective.

I asked him if the strategy worked and he grinned at me—“If I thought it worked, it would be a delusion and I am not delusional anymore. It’s just an over-valued belief at this point”. When I persisted by tilting my head and looking curious, he grinned more widely—“At this point, I can’t stop myself from doing it sometimes “just in case” but it only happens with bills that are really important”.

That lesson stuck with me so when I saw this article on the importance of defining the difference between a delusional belief and an over-valued idea—I knew it would end up as a blog post. It’s a good distinction to be aware of and perhaps especially important for those working on the criminal justice system.

First, a website story introduces today’s research article and includes a brief summary of the Norway killings (remember that one?) and the shooter’s rationale:

In the aftermath of violent acts such as mass shootings, many people assume mental illness is the cause. After studying the 2011 case of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, University of Missouri School of Medicine researchers are suggesting a new forensic term to classify non-psychotic behavior that leads to criminal acts of violence.

“When these types of tragedies occur, we question the reason behind them,” said Tahir Rahman, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the MU School of Medicine and lead author of the study. “Sometimes people think that violent actions must be the byproduct of psychotic mental illness, but this is not always the case. Our study of the Breivik case was meant to explain how extreme beliefs can be mistaken for psychosis, and to suggest a new legal term that clearly defines this behavior.”

Breivik, a Norwegian terrorist, killed 77 people on July 22, 2011, in a car bombing in Oslo and a mass shooting at a youth camp on the island of Utøya in Norway. Claiming to be a “Knights Templar” and a “savior of Christianity,” Breivik stated that the purpose of the attacks was to save Europe from multiculturalism.

In other words, when people commit violent acts (like mass murders), many others often assume mental illness was involved. For the most part, we are unable to imagine the rationale for such acts and so we explain it to ourselves by presuming the killer must be insane. So, if someone commits mass murders, the armchair observer often “diagnoses” the killer with mental illness and/or psychosis. While it may make intuitive sense (e.g., “No one in their right mind would do that….”), it is often, nonetheless, inaccurate.

That is where the forensic examiner enters the scene to see if the level of thought disturbance meets the legal bar for murder driven by delusions. The field of forensic evaluation is very complicated and there are specific rules about the height of the bar over which one must leap (in very technical terms) in order to be declared incompetent to stand trial or to be found competent to stand trial but ultimately tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill.

When a forensic evaluator adjudges a defendant not legally responsible for having performed an unthinkable act (such as killing one’s family, child, or a group of random strangers), there are generally delusional beliefs (e.g., “I thought my mother was the devil”) driving the behavior. And there are strict definitions for what constitutes a delusional belief (see the DSM-5 diagnostic manual’s criteria here). So today’s researchers use the example of that well-covered mass murder in Norway to explain the killings were not driven by delusional beliefs (the legal bar) but rather, by non-psychotic “extremely over-valued beliefs”.

They define that new term by quoting the work of another author (McHugh in 1998) and say that extreme over-valued beliefs are typically accompanied by fanaticism:

An extreme over-valued belief is one that is shared by others in a persons’s cultural, religious, or subcultural group. The belief is often relished, amplified, and defended by the possessor of the belief and should be differentiated from a delusion or obsession. The idea fulminates in the mind of the individual, growing more dominant over time, more refined, and more resistant to challenge. The individual has an intense emotional commitment to the belief and may carry out violent behavior in its service. It is usually associated with an abnormal personality.

So one with an extreme over-valued belief may still commit very violent acts “in service” of that belief but they would not meet criteria for psychosis and would clearly understand what they were doing was wrong. From a legal perspective, they would be potentially guilty and subject to punishment. The authors say that “the court ultimately had to draw a line” in the Norway case and concluded that the shooter’s beliefs were “neither bizarre or delusional” and noted “the evaluators who opined that he was not criminally responsible should have consulted experts on right-wing ideologies before concluding that his grandeur was culturally implausible”.

In short, having extremely weird or bizarre beliefs is not the same as being mentally incompetent. This is a distinction worth keeping in mind during election years…

The authors (three prominent psychiatrists) say that “extremely over-valued beliefs” are going to be rigidly held (like delusions) but will be non-delusional. They close with two uncommonly clear sentences summarizing why they see this contribution as important.

The fact that a defendant committed a crime because of a delusional belief is a common basis for an insanity defense. It is therefore critically important that forensic psychiatrists properly identify a defendant’s belief as either a delusion or as an extreme over-valued belief.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, the takeaway for the prosecutor is that if a person’s behavior is driven by delusions, they may be successfully treated with medication. There is no medication that will help with the intractable extreme over-valued beliefs. The defendant is thus a potential danger to society since these beliefs are just as intractable as psychotic delusions.

While the distinction is a good one of which to be aware—the reality is that juries may well see the organized, plotting, and planning (probably psychopathic) predator with the “extremely over-valued beliefs” as potentially more dangerous than the mentally ill individual whose delusions will stop driving behavior when properly medicated. It makes sense for forensic examiners to be capable of differentiating between delusions and over-valued beliefs but for the layperson juror—these are just “two very scary” defendants and it’s likely they will want them both locked up.

Rahman T, Resnick PJ, & Harry B (2016). Anders Breivik: Extreme Beliefs Mistaken for Psychosis. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 44 (1), 28-35 PMID: 26944741

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ancestry dnaIn a word, maybe. Apparently, it all depends on whether your focus is on differences between you and others or similarities when it comes to genetic makeup. The researchers had Jewish and Arab participants read a new articles which (naturally) cited a scientific article reporting either high genetic similarities or high genetic differences between Jews and Arabs.

The findings were consistent: if you read the article saying Jews and Arabs were genetically very different—you were going to describe the other group as more violent, unfriendly, and just plain mean than you would if you had just read the article saying Jews and Arabs were genetically quite similar.

In a follow-up experiment, Jewish participants were told (you know the researchers lied about this) they were playing a computerized game against an Arab opponent in the next room. The winner of the game could give their opponent a loud blast of noise (and, importantly, they could turn the noise up to the volume of a fire alarm).

Those Jewish participants who had read about genetic differences blasted the room allegedly containing their Arab opponent with more intense noise blasts than did the Jewish participants who’d read about genetic similarities.

Finally, a third study asked Jewish participants (again, either reading the news article stressing similarity or the article stressing differences in genetic makeup between the two groups) to rate their support for making peace with Palestinians.

This time they found that those who had read about genetic similarities were more supportive of conflict resolution.

So, next the researchers took their study on the road to Israel (obviously, a site of conflict between Jews and Arabs). With Israeli Jews, genetic differences were important.

Jewish Israeli’s (surveyed on Israeli commuter trains) were more supportive of violent, war-like policies towards Palestinian’s after reading about their own genetic differences from Arabs.

The authors think this is powerful (and very scary) information for us to incorporate. They say most DNA ancestry test results don’t disclose overlaps with other ancestry populations and this appears to have the potential to potentially result in more negative views of those that are different from us. Two of the four authors write a summary of their results for Scientific American which concludes this way:

We suggest that DNA ancestry services remind us that our ancestry results are actually based on much less than 0.1 percent of our genes. We also suggest that organizations like International Crisis Group and Genocide Watch pay particular attention when propaganda highlights warring groups’ genetic dissimilarities. The popular media should also be highly cautious when reporting on groups’ genetics. News and magazine articles are frequently reporting on the degree of DNA overlap between groups with a history of conflict—Hutu and Tutsi, Jews and Arabs, White Europeans and Roma, Russians and Ukrainians, English and Irish—yet rarely make clear that there is in fact no genetic basis for race. [Note: For more on this line of thought, see this thought-provoking piece at the Huffington Post.]

Until then, when encountering information about how our DNA is different from other populations, we must remind ourselves that these variations are in fact minuscule. If we fail to, it can have drastic consequences.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, the tendency for people everywhere to draw greater distinctions than truly exist between “us” and “them” is why we recommend the use of “universal values” to help very different jurors in your specific venue see the defendant as more similar to them than different from them. We’ve blogged about the importance of building universal values into case themes and witness testimony often, and encourage you to read through those recommendations. This research says it may be even more important than you imagine.

Kimel, S., Huesmann, R., Kunst, J., & Halperin, E. (2016). Living in a Genetic World: How Learning About Interethnic Genetic Similarities and Differences Affects Peace and Conflict Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42 (5), 688-700 DOI: 10.1177/0146167216642196

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