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Do you want to know the future? You may want to say it all depends on which aspects of your future. Typically, while we seek information routinely to make decisions in our day-to-day lives, we don’t always want to know for sure what will happen in our futures. These researchers remind us about the story of Cassandra in Greek mythology.

“According to Greek mythology, Apollo granted Cassandra, daughter of the king of Troy, the power of foreseeing the future. Yet after his failed attempt to seduce her, he placed a curse on her so that her prophecies would never be believed. Cassandra foresaw the fall of Troy, the death of her father, the hour of her own death, and the name of her murderer. To helplessly watch the approach of future horrors became a source of endless pain, suffering, and regret of her terrible solitary knowledge.”

They also invoke Bob Dylan’s classic line from the song ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,

“How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?”

They then summarize the research which shows us that people do not often want to know about specific results of genetic testing, or HIV tests, or even whether they are likely to become demented. What the researchers are most interested in, however, is what they call “deliberate ignorance”.

“We use the term deliberate ignorance to refer to the willful decision not to know, as opposed to the inability to access information or disinterest in the question. Deliberate ignorance can result from inaction, that is, not searching for diagnostic information, or from action, such as refusing information that someone else offers.”

In other words, when you actively choose not to know, you are willfully choosing to remain deliberately ignorant which is very different, according to the researchers, than simply not knowing—i.e., being ignorant. So the researchers did two different experiments (one in Germany and one in Spain (both with non-student populations) to see how common deliberate ignorance was and to investigate whether there was a pattern to choices to remain deliberately ignorant.

In Germany, they asked participants five positive questions and five negative questions — to ascertain in which situations the individual would choose deliberate ignorance. Here is how their sample (of more than 900 participants) responded:

Negative events:

Would you want to know today when your partner will die? No: 89.5%.

Would you want to know today from what cause your partner will die? No: 90.4%.

Would you want to know today when you will die? No: 87.7%.

Would you want to know today from what cause you will die? No: 87.3%.

Assume you are newly married. Would you want to know today whether your marriage will eventually end in divorce or not? No: 86.5%.

Positive events:

Assume you video-recorded a soccer world-champion game because you could not watch it live. While you are watching the recording, a friend enters who has already watched the game. Would you want to know from the friend how it ended (as opposed to asking not to tell)? No: 76.9%.

Would you want to know in advance what you are getting for Christmas? No: 59.6%.

Would you like to know whether there is life after death? No: 56.9%.

Assume you bought a blue sapphire for 2,000 euros during your vacation in Sri Lanka. The dealer assured you that the sapphire is genuine. Back home, you can check this, but you have no chance of lodging a complaint or returning the stone. A test would cost 50 euros. Would you have the sapphire tested to be sure whether it is genuine or not? No: 48.6%.

Assume you/your partner is pregnant. The gender of the child can be reliably determined by ultrasound. Would you want to know the gender of your child before birth? No: 40.3%.

The researchers saw this response pattern as showing “widespread deliberate ignorance” for both negative events and for positive events. They thought this inconsistent with the human desire to avoid uncertainty so they went to Spain to see if things were different there. They found the same patterns in Spain.

The researchers conclude it is common for people to choose to remain “deliberately ignorant” to avoid negative news but also to maintain the positive emotions of surprise and suspense surrounding personally important events. Cassandra, in Greek mythology, was unable to make the choice to remain deliberately ignorant. That is not the case for us—as is seen in the choices many of the German and Spanish citizens made to remain deliberately ignorant.

Additionally, the researchers found that the closer in age the participants were to the likelihood of a negative event happening (e.g., divorce, death of a partner, old-age health problems), the more likely they were to choose deliberate ignorance.

There was also an odd (and potentially useful) finding in this study. One of the questions researchers asked was what kind of insurance policies the participants had purchased. What they found was those that had purchased policies that were not mandated by the country or immediate area in which they lived, were slightly more likely to choose deliberate ignorance for future events.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is a good point to remember and to educate jurors on in opening statement. There are times we simply do not want to know (whether about something positive or something negative) and so we make a choice. We have all done this and it allows us to be happier before negative things happen and to enjoy the surprise inherent in good things happening. That choice does not mean we have failed to do something, it simply means we are doing what (apparently) the majority of people do and choosing not to know.

Gigerenzer G, & Garcia-Retamero R (2017). Cassandra’s regret: The psychology of not wanting to know. Psychological Review, 124 (2), 179-196 PMID: 28221086

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This is the sort of article that can either amuse or terrify you. It will amuse you if you are charmed by all the ways in which we see ourselves as superior to others. And it will terrify you if you do not want to know that you are always being observed closely by everyone around you. The article even starts off creepily:

“People-watching is an age-old pastime. People notice and observe the people around them all the time—on trains, at cafés, waiting in line, at cocktail parties and office meetings, and beyond. Pretty much anywhere there are other people, we spend a good deal of time watching them, wondering who they are, and assessing what they are like. But despite all the watching people do of others people rarely feel as if they, themselves, are being observed as they go about their daily lives. Indeed, people feel relatively invisible.

Of course it is impossible that people (on average) observe others more than they themselves are observed. Yet this is precisely what we suspect people believe. We call this bias the invisibility cloak illusion. This is an illusion that prevents you from realizing that, whether you are on a plane, in a restaurant, or at a rodeo, when you stop watching people and taking in the social scene—when you turn your attention to whatever else you are doing—the people around you are likely to raise their eyes from whatever they were doing and watch you.”

It is just spooky. We first saw this article over at the BPS Research Digest and they poked fun at it (just a little) and poked special fun at a “particularly cruel experiment” from the year 2000, involving being required to wear a Barry Manilow t-shirt—so we went to read the actual article. (We also have a blog post poking fun at a more recent Barry Manilow reference.) But we digress. Here is what the researchers did in today’s featured research.

First, the researchers verified the existence of the invisibility cloak illusion using online participants. Then, using Yale undergraduate students, they asked two participants of the same gender to sit in a waiting room prior to the experiment beginning. (We all know the experiment had already begun.) After seven minutes (precisely), the two participants were taken to separate rooms and told they were either the “observer” or the “target”. The observer wrote down everything they noticed about the target while the participant assigned to be the target wrote down everything they expected the observer would have noticed about them. Consistent with the invisibility cloak illusion, the observers produced more detailed notes about the target than the target predicted they would. But having read that old Barry Manilow experiment, our fearless researchers were not yet done.

Next, the researchers wanted to see if the spotlight effect (featured in the Barry Manilow t-shirt experiment where people required to wear the t-shirt felt exceptionally self-conscious) could co-exist with the invisibility cloak illusion. So they had half the target-participants wear a t-shirt with the Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar on it. (We think they should have used a Barry Manilow t-shirt instead but perhaps it was deemed by the Yale Human Subjects Review committee to be unreasonably cruel—hence the Escobar attire.) They repeated the waiting room experiment with the only difference being the drug lord t-shirt foisted on one of the participants. They were left in the waiting room together for five minutes and then sent to separate rooms to once again answer questions as to what they had observed or what they thought had been observed about them. Again, observers listed more behaviors and characteristics than the target thought they would have observed.

An addition to this follow-up experiment was that the observer was asked how much they thought about the target’s shirt as they observed the target prior to the experiment. And here is where it gets even creepier—the target-participants thought the observers would look at their shirt much more when they were wearing the Pablo Escobar shirt supplied by the experimenters rather than their own shirt. The observers, however, “observed, noticed, and thought about the targets’ shirts equally across conditions, regardless of whether the target was wearing a provided shirt”.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this means it is particularly important that you and your client are always aware you are on-stage at all times when in the courtroom. The most important audience is, naturally, the jury, but this research would say everyone is watching you (although the researchers remind us frequently in the article that observers go to great pains to make it appear they are not watching you). Much like the inaccurate “better than average effect”, the invisibility cloak illusion tells us we are watched even as we watch (and apparently, we are judged even as we judge). Parties and witnesses sometimes believe they are only really being observed when they are giving testimony. Alas, it is so untrue.

The researchers sum it up this way:

“The invisibility cloak illusion consists in people believing they observe others more than others observe them. This belief appears to be pervasive and persistent, despite being logically impossible in the aggregate. It cannot be true that, on average, people are noticing and observing others more than they themselves are noticed and observed. Yet everyday people experience the compelling sensation that social observations flow predominantly in one direction.

People peer out at the social world and yet they feel relatively unseen, as if they are inconspicuous consumers of their social surroundings. However irresistible this sensation may be, it is not to be trusted. The sensation of observing others while remaining relatively unseen is a mirage, obscuring the reality that we are all equally exposed to one another.”

Obviously these researchers have no interest in comforting any of us and this research is not at all comforting. What it does do though is offer an uncomfortable reminder to us—we are never off stage and certainly never off stage in the courtroom or in professional activities. And neither is anyone else.

Boothby EJ, Clark MS, & Bargh JA (2017). The invisibility cloak illusion: People (incorrectly) believe they observe others more than others observe them. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112 (4), 589-606 PMID: 27977221

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Of course it isn’t a surprise that they are gravely disturbed, but who knew it was neuropsychological?  This is an article from researchers at Northwestern University and looks very specifically at similarities and differences in the neuropsychological test scores of those who killed only children and those who killed some adults as well as children.

The researchers start by telling us that the murder of a child is among the “rarest and least understood categories of homicide”. It is a fairly gruesome inquiry that the researchers say is made all the more necessary with media coverage that has mostly focused on women who kill their children (often in an intense post-partum psychosis). The researchers say that the homicide of children occurs in many contexts and not all of those contexts include mental illness. They carefully review the literature on child homicide and even discuss the differences between mothers and fathers who kill their children. We are going to focus here on the neuropsychological differences between those that kill only children and those who kill adults as well as one or more children.

We also note that this is a small sample of 33 people (27 men and 6 women) convicted of 1st degree murder in three states (i.e., Illinois, Missouri, Indiana) who were referred for forensic neuropsychological evaluations to assess fitness to stand trial, criminal responsibility, or sentencing. Of this small group, the average age was 32 years, 48.5% were Black, 36.4% were Caucasian, and 12.1% were Hispanic while 3.0% were described as “other” in terms of race/ethnicity. The researchers said those convicted murderers who had killed adults as well as children were comparable to what is known of other murderers. However, when they looked at those convicted murderers who had killed children only, a different pattern emerged.

Here is what they report on those murderers who killed only children:

The murders are less likely to be premeditated and the murderer is less likely to have traits associated with premeditation (e.g., a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder and/or substance abuse).

Child murderers were more likely to kill with their hands—as by drowning or beating.

Child murderers were more likely to score lower on measures of language and verbal memory (which the researchers link to poor conflict mediation skills).

The researchers suggest that, since those who kill children only, seem to have deficits (intellectual and interpersonal)—it may be useful to identify them and offer training in problem solving and communication skills. They suggest it may take more organization than the “child only” murderers have to kill multiple victims who are both adults and children.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, the horror related to a murder of this sort makes it difficult for jurors to consider mitigating circumstances. If these researchers are accurate, these are murderers who used their hands to kill innocent children—very personal and inescapably deliberate— and the act will likely be seen as heinous and unforgivable. Those who kill or abuse children are not viewed positively in the prison environment and there is no reason to believe jurors are going to view them more positively either. Jurors will likely be disgusted by the defendant’s behavior but may also respond well to the idea of the defendant receiving rehabilitative services (such as problem-solving and communication training, anger management, and more) so that there is less likelihood of a similar situation arising in the future. This sort of research can potentially explain why something horrible happened and offer jurors information on rehabilitation strategies that will make history less likely to repeat itself.

Azores-Gococo, N., Brook, M., Teralandur, S., & Hanlon, R. (2017). Killing A Child. Criminal Justice and Behavior. DOI: 10.1177/0093854817699437

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All this week, we have focused on research about lying but there are multiple other articles we want to share with you that will not require a full post. Think of this post as an update on deception that will aid you in preparation for court (and life in general).

Small, self-serving lies change our brain and make us more likely to lie for personal gain

It really is like a slippery slope. Like much deception research these days, this project used fMRIs to scan participants brains while they lied. First they told small lies and their brain’s amygdala lit up. As they told additional lies the amygdala became less bright as their brain got used to lying. This study was published in Nature Neuroscience which is not open access but you can read a summary of the work over at Medical News Today.

Misleading ourselves to better mislead others

Scientific American recently published an article on how we can use self-deception in order to more effectively persuade others. The article describes research (soon to be published in the Journal of Economic Psychology) that was first proposed in the 1970s and focuses on how we seek information to support what we want to believe and avoid information that does not support what we want to believe. Anyone who has done any pretrial research has seen this phenomenon play out over and over again through the darkened glass of the observation room. The author quotes one of the researchers to end the article in this somewhat disturbing paragraph:

Von Hippel [one of the authors] offers two pieces of wisdom regarding self-deception: “My Machiavellian advice is this is a tool that works,” he says. “If you need to convince somebody of something, if your career or social success depends on persuasion, then the first person who needs to be [convinced] is yourself.” On the defensive side, he says, whenever anyone tries to convince you of something, think about what might be motivating that person. Even if he is not lying to you, he may be deceiving both you and himself.

Comparing fMRI and polygraphs for lie detection

You know that polygraphs are not admissible in court and that there have been many (many) questions on the utility of fMRI research on deception when we cannot really know what it means when certain areas of the brain light up. All we can say is that they light up. In this interesting research out of the University of Pennsylvania, researchers compared fMRI readings to polygraph readings and found something surprising. When neuroscience experts (who had no prior experience in lie detection) were able to use fMRI results completed by “liars”, they were much more accurate in identifying deception than were polygraph examiners looking at the same “liars”. You can read a brief news release here or a more comprehensive neuroscience blog post here.

An update on the courtroom readiness of the fMRI for lie detection

Lest you think the preceding study means fMRI is ready for a courtroom closeup—the Macarthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience has recently released a 4-page brief summarizing the state of fMRI research and readiness to be used in courts of law. Here is what they conclude [and we quote]:

At present, many of the issues that concern the scientific community with respect to the use of fMRI for lie detection are likely to be problematic for the legal community, at least in most contexts. In fact, much of the existing research on deception has no bearing on the question that matters most to judges, lawyers, defendants, and juries, i.e., “Can fMRI-based lie detection methods provide a legally relevant answer to a specific question?”

Most scientists—including many who have reported detecting lies in the laboratory with a high degree of accuracy—agree that more and different research will need to be conducted before fMRI-based lie detection is ready for its day in court.

While the short answer is “it is not ready”—you may want to go read this for yourself and impress others with your knowledge of the specifics on why not.

Garrett N, Lazzaro SC, Ariely D, & Sharot T (2016). The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nature Neuroscience, 19 (12), 1727-1732 PMID: 27775721http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v19/n12/full/nn.4426.html

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It’s been all about “fake news” for a while now and here’s a study telling us to just stop talking about it. Well, sort of. What it actually says is even when we have knowledge to the contrary, if we hear something repeated enough—we come to believe it. Hence, our recommendation that we need to all stop repeating fake news—even if our comment is on how ridiculous it may seem. It is as if the false statements morph when repeated enough from outrageous to familiar to having a ring of truth. Merely by repetition.

It’s a bit like the dictum we’ve written before to “change the narrative” and not use the same terms the opposition is using to describe something like “death panels” or figuring out how to debunk faked visual imagery. You don’t want to accidentally reinforce the ideas and images of the opposition but you do need to put forth your own narrative. Today’s research offers insight into just how a listener can know something to be false and yet, after hearing it repeated, accept it may be true after all.

As the researchers remind us, “repeated statements are easier to process, and subsequently perceived to be more truthful, than new statements”. Nazi Joseph Goebbels is often credited with a law of propaganda that would be another way to communicate the same idea as the researchers want us to understand: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”. While we may not believe this would ever happen to us, it definitely does with the researchers ultimately concluding that we have “knowledge neglect” and tend to support the conclusion that is easiest for us to support. It’s just too tiring, apparently, to actually think. Against the tide of fake news, it requires endless vigilance.

In this case, the researchers wanted to see if the “illusion of truth” (i.e., hearing falsehoods repeated) would over-ride “stored knowledge” (i.e., things we know to be true). For example, they offered two statements to participants:

The Atlantic Ocean is the largest ocean on Earth.

The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean on Earth.

The researchers figured most people would know that the Pacific is the largest ocean on Earth and thus that elementary school factoid would be in the “stored knowledge” of most participants. (We questioned this assumption but we should note the participants in the two experiments were all undergraduates at Duke and thus perhaps more able to remember elementary school factoids than those of us who are slightly older.) Despite being fairly young, most of the participants did not put forth enough effort to ponder their prior knowledge and call up the facts—so, the illusion of truth worked. Sometimes. However, when participants did think about their stored knowledge, they chose the correct answer

The authors explain this finding by saying that we can all apply our stored knowledge to every bit of new information that comes to us, but this takes tremendous effort and energy. It requires us to assess the new information against other things we know or think we know. That requires a commitment to stay focused and costs the individual in terms of both energy and effort. We see this sort of fatigue and energy loss often in our mock jurors who are operating at full capacity to come to a decision on what is right during pre-trial research. They are thinking and want to come to the right decisions.

From a litigation advocacy standpoint, however, we have to realize this energy and effort is a limited resource.The energy and understanding of jurors are prey to the illusion of truth effect because our tendency is to use short-cuts in assessing how plausible something is as we hear it. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. You can help jurors by using expert witnesses to teach them that something really is true—and it is a provable fact rather than simply a statement of opinion. How?

Start by having the witness ease them into the area that is key to their testimony, by having them first remind jurors of what they know, establishing that the expert relies on knowledge that they believe in. Give them the experience of “Hey—I know what s/he just said is true!” Then move the focus to increasingly unfamiliar territory, after building the credibility connection.

Have the expert witness cite scientific studies finding whatever statement they are testifying to is supportable by recent research. That broadens the connection from the juror to the research, using the expert as a conduit.

Go further by having that expert witness address what the opposing expert may say and why your expert  knows that to be incorrect (citing other research and scientific consensus rather than mere opinion).

What is most important is that you respect jurors’ ability to think and give them reason to want to expend the effort to evaluate the facts in the case for you and for your client. Don’t make this merely about which party is more likable or attractive (although certainly do what you can to portray your client as both likable and similar in values to the jurors).

While the researchers recommend future research focus on how to get people to rely on their own stored knowledge rather than repetition to ascertain truth—until that research is completed—your best strategy is to help jurors think through the facts and answer the questions that are likely to come up for them as they hear the evidence.

Fazio LK, Brashier NM, Payne BK, & Marsh EJ (2015). Knowledge does not protect against illusory truth. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General, 144 (5), 993-1002 PMID: 26301795

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