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paranoia-240x300Not long ago we blogged about the reality that half of Americans believe in at least one public health conspiracy. The same researchers have now looked into other conspiracy theories and found similar trends: half of Americans believe at least one conspiracy theory. So. Let’s take a look at what the researchers say about the sort of personality that lies behind the acceptance of conspiracy theories.

First, you need to have a tendency to attribute the reason behind unexplained or extraordinary events to “unseen and intentional forces”.

Second, you need to also have a tendency to be attracted to “melodramatic narratives” as explanations especially those narratives that interpret historical events as a classic struggle between good and evil. (If you want to stump your friends, this sort of duality is known as a Manichean narrative.)

This time, rather than public health conspiracy theories, the researchers examined various general and ideological conspiracy theories popular among your friends and neighbors (and perhaps even you!) as sampled by a YouGov/Polimetrix survey of 1,935 individuals in 2011. Here are the conspiracy theories they assessed (and the percentage expressing a belief in them).

The US invasion of Iraq was not part of a campaign to fight terrorism, but was driven by oil companies and Jews in the US and Israel. (This was called the “Iraq War conspiracy” and was familiar to 44% of respondents and 19% agreed.)

Certain US government officials planned the attacks of September 11, 2001 because they wanted the US to go to war in the Middle East. (“Truther conspiracy” was familiar to 67% of the respondents and 19% agreed.)

President Barack Obama was not really born in the US and does not have an authentic Hawaiian birth certificate. (“Birther conspiracy” was familiar to 94% and 24% believed it.)

The current financial crisis was secretly orchestrated by a small group of Wall Street bankers to extend the power of the Federal Reserve and further their control of the world’s economy. (“Financial Crisis conspiracy” was familiar to 46% while 25% believed it.)

Vapor trails left by aircraft are actually chemical agents deliberately sprayed in a clandestine program directed by government officials. (This was called the “Chem Trails conspiracy” was familiar to 17% of respondents although only 9% believed it.)

Billionaire George Soros is behind a hidden plot to destabilize the American government, take control of the media, and put the world under his control. (The “Soros conspiracy” was familiar to 31% and 19% believed it.)

The US government is mandating the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs because such lights make people more obedient and easier to control. (“The CFLB conspiracy” was familiar to 17% and believed by 11%.)

Overall the researchers say that 55% of the 2011 respondents believed at least one of these theories. The most popular (at 25%) was the Financial Crisis conspiracy, followed by the Birther conspiracy, which was also followed closely by the Truther, Iraq War and Soros conspiracies. The Chem Trails conspiracy theory was far behind the other conspiracies. They do not initially mention the light bulb conspiracy but it was comparably accepted to the Chem Trail conspiracy.

Later the researchers confess to having made up that CFLB theory just to see if anyone would bite. (It’s so hard to trust those conspiracy researchers although they do confide in the reader that there actually are conspiracy theories that CFLB “lights contribute to greater fatigue or may serve as a weapon to induce mercury poisoning through a massive electromagnetic pulse”.)

They remind us that large portions of the population are drawn to the Manichean-style narrative with the struggle between good and evil and that this tendency is particularly strong in “the high proportion of Americans who believe we are living in biblical end times”. The researchers seem to believe that conspiracy theories are simply part of the American experience particularly for the many of us for whom “complicated or nuanced explanations for political events are both cognitively taxing and have limited appeal”. Conspiracy theories are more exciting and engrossing and thus, we choose, in some cases, to believe them.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, it’s a good reminder (again) of how often the message you mean to send can trigger associations to something altogether different. And if in voir dire, you make a joke about an absolutely nutty conspiracy theory, keep in mind that a good number of your jurors are going to believe it, while others will be muttering to themselves on break that they had no idea that your theory was true, and still others will think you are out of your mind. This is a variation on our general advice to avoid making jokes during trial about anything or anyone but yourself. And yet, sometimes it is just irresistible…

Oliver, J., & Wood, T. (2014). Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion American Journal of Political Science DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12084



THE BIG BANG THEORYLawyers are often taken aback when they hear mock jurors discussing their case and demonstrating little understanding of what was actually presented in evidence. We tend to see that emotional reaction go hand in hand with the excess consumption of peanut M&Ms. The more distorted the mock juror’s understanding of the evidence, the more the supply of peanut M&Ms in the room dwindles and the more attorneys pace back and forth and talk with their mouths full. 

My Dad was a pilot stationed in Italy during WWII, and enjoyed telling a story about a guy in his flight group who somehow thought that if he spoke English slowly and LOUDLY, the Italians (who spoke not a word of English) would understand him. The fact that it never worked didn’t make a difference to him. He blamed the Italians for not getting it. As smart as our readers are, I’m thinking that you know where this is heading…

It’s probably a good thing that the National Science Foundation surveys the American public routinely to see what we really know. And it’s probably a good thing for you to read it and understand how to gauge the appropriate level at which to present your case.

80% of Americans say they are interested in “new scientific discoveries”: That’s quite a lot of us. We would guess that while many are “interested”, few really bother to understand or seek out specifics beyond the headlines.

It’s the internet, not TV (and certainly NOT print media although online versions of newspapers are popular): First off, most people’s information about science and technology comes from the internet (40%, up from about 33% in 2010) and then TV. We are all familiar with the ever-present use of smart phones to look up a term or clarify our understanding, or see when our favorite reality show is showing reruns. A significant proportion still get their science and technology information from TV viewing, though. So what are they watching on TV or streaming on the internet? Bill O’Reilly, Jon Stewart, the Discovery Channel, or $10M Bigfoot Bounty? It would likely be to your benefit to know.

Zoos, aquariums, and museums: The majority of Americans say they visited a zoo, aquarium or museum in 2012 but attendance is down at zoos and aquariums. Science museums tend to be visited by those with higher income and education.

Americans scored 64% on a science factual quiz in 2012: And this is similar to our scores in previous years. Surprisingly, perhaps, Europeans score at about the same level as Americans. Questions posed had to do with evolution, the big bang theory, whether the sun revolves around the Earth or the Earth revolves around the sun, and so on. Yes, there is a big faction in our country that believes the Biblical account of creation dates the Earth to about 6,000 years, but they remain familiar with more scientifically validated ‘truths’.

We can answer a little on research design but are uncertain of specifics: Most Americans could answer two multiple-choice questions about probability but had trouble describing why one would need a control group in scientific experimentation. There was also difficulty in describing what makes an activity “scientific”.

And the list goes on and on. Americans are divided on climate change. Our support for oil and nuclear energy has rebounded. We have trouble identifying just which occupations are “scientific” and we have difficulty distinguishing science from pseudoscience. We’re not particularly concerned about genetically modified food stuffs compared to other countries. We see using stem cells from human embryos in medical research as “morally acceptable”.

We have an obligation to understand what language our jurors speak. If they don’t understand you, being loud or repetitious isn’t going to help you in court any more than it helped my father’s friend in Italy. If you know the limits of their knowledge, you can present the evidence in a way that teaches, not merely in a way that  justifies argument.

We work on a great deal of patent litigation, sometimes on software code or scientific processes that not even the lawyers for the parties truly understand. The judge doesn’t understand it. Certainly the jurors don’t. But a version of this densely scientific material can be taught. Understanding and patient testimony from an expert can reassure jurors that this witness can be trusted, and that this person will help them find their way through this strange wilderness of code, formulas, or physics.

Would trials be better if they were more like peer-review panels? Arguably, Markman hearings, rulings on motions in limine, and summary judgment decisions already get pretty close to that situation. We find that leaving the balance of the judging to actual citizen jurors usually has them finding a just verdict.

It’s worth a look at the overview of findings and the entire report itself. The results are sometimes surprising and other times disturbing. It’s information you can use to understand the level of knowledge to expect from your audience at trial.

National Science Board. 2014. Science and Engineering Indicators 2014. Arlington VA: National Science Foundation (NSB 14-01).






avoid generational stereotypesWe’ve written about this a lot both here on the blog and over at The Jury Expert. So it isn’t news to us, but evidently it continues to surprise experts in other fields. Business journals are still urging differing management strategies for members of different generations in the workplace. But, as in other research, today’s authors find their data does not support this popular recommendation. So we offer this research review in the hope that someone will bring it with them to work. Here we go again…

Researchers wanted to test three generational stereotypes in the workplace to see if data would support common assumptions. Specifically, they examined:

Whether Baby Boomers change jobs less often than Gen X or Millennials (“job mobility”);

Whether Baby Boomers comply more with workplace rules than do Gen X or Millennials (“compliance with work rules”), and

Whether Gen X members are either less motivated or lazy, thus less likely to work overtime than either Baby Boomers or Millennials (“willingness to work overtime”).

These are all common stereotypes (i.e., younger employees job hop, they do not comply with rules, and are unwilling to pull their weight if it’s inconvenient) and, stereotypes often exist for a reason. Sometimes it is due to facts. Other times it is due to the holder of the viewpoint being kinda grumpy and annoyed with the subgroup in question. But, other times, stereotypes simply do not accurately describe the nuances, or even the reality of situations.

The researchers used a huge sample of 8,128 people who applied for jobs at two different hospitals located in the southeastern United States. The sample was composed of Baby Boomers (N = 1,641, 20.2%), GenXers (4,972, 61.2%), and Millennials (1,515, 18.6%). On average, Boomers were 48.5 years old, GenXers were 30.8 years old and the Millennials were 21.5 years old (these are tilted toward the younger end in all 3 groups). The group was racially heterogeneous with 301 Native Americans (3.7%), 116 Asian/Pacific Islanders (1.4%), 237 Hispanics (2.9%), 3,955 African-Americans (48.7%) and 3,211 Caucasians (39.5%). A total of 308 (3.8%) did not disclose race. The sample was 83.2% female, 15.8% male and 1% did not disclose their gender. So, although each of these demographic cells is large enough for meaningful interpretation, the profile doesn’t perfectly match the national profile or the workforce. Asian and Hispanic participants are under-represented, African-Americans are over-represented, and it is a much more a female sample than a male sample. But with that said, a study this big allows for skewing like that without sacrificing validity.

As part of their application process, participants were required to complete a questionnaire on their historical workplace behaviors, and researchers used this data to identify their findings.

This research, unlike most prior research on generations at work, focused on historical job behaviors self-reported by the applicants (as opposed to a self-report of individual attitudes and values). While there were differences in the three areas assessed, the differences were small. The authors caution readers to understand that the typical recommendation to apply different management strategies to each separate generation in your workplace is likely not a good use of funds for improving your particular workplace. In other words, this study (of more than 8,000 people) did not support the idea that you should practice different management strategies for employees from different generations–the differences found were just too small statistically.

Here is what the researchers found about the common generalizations held about the various generations in the workplace.

Job mobility: Boomers actually do stay in jobs longer than GenXers and Millennials and it isn’t just that they are older and no longer moving about for their careers. On average, Boomers stayed at a job a bit more than 2 years longer than GenXers, and 4 years longer than Millennials.

Compliance with workplace rules: Older employees do have a slight tendency to adhere more to workplace rules concerning attendance and appearance. They also have less experience with having been fired (or quitting in lieu of being fired). However, this difference was not so much about generation per se as it was about age since individuals in all generations tended to comply more with workplace rules as they get older (and presumably matured).

GenXers will work less overtime: This one is also actually true (and we’ve written about how GenXers are actually living out their values). GenXers were less likely to work overtime than Boomers and Millennials. (There was no difference between the Boomers and Millennials in terms of a history of working overtime hours.)

The researchers emphasize that the differences in the target workplace behaviors don’t warrant different management strategies for different age groups. The differences are simply too small statistically. Instead, the researchers recommend that HR representatives build in flexibility to HR practices and strategies to address the needs of all employees rather than a single generational group. It’s what consultants often say when they are training managers about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Good management is good management. You don’t tailor based on generation. You manage based on the individual and the demands of the job.

It bears repeating: Good management is good management. Stereotypes are not good management, even when well-intentioned.

Becton, J., Walker, H., & Jones-Farmer, A. (2014). Generational differences in workplace behavior Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44 (3), 175-189 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12208



woody allen dylan farrowThe sad and painful tale of Dylan Farrow has emerged again following her letter to the NYT after Woody Allen received the Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement Award. Woody Allen responded to Ms. Farrow’s open letter and she responded to his response. The internet has been on fire with reactions, pro-Farrow, pro-Allen, and everything in between. You can find them with a simple internet search and we won’t link to them here. 

This post isn’t really about the letter, the responses, or the internet reaction to them. Instead, it’s about the original judge in the dispute and a cautionary tale for the attorneys who hire expert witnesses everywhere. I first saw the judge’s written opinion when it was sent around on a mailing list. It reads like a “don’t do this” text for the would-be forensic expert witness. There are so many legitimate reasons this case would not have succeeded at trial–regardless of Mr. Allen’s actual culpability.

Among the trial attorney lessons to be culled from the judges’ opinion, are the following:

Be sure your experts are really experts.

“Both Dr. Coates and Dr. Schultz expressed their opinions that Mr. Allen did not sexually abuse Dylan. Neither Dr. Coates nor Dr. Schultz has expertise in the field of child sexual abuse.” (p 22)

Make sure your expert keeps notes made during the process of report completion.

“The notes of the [Yale-New Haven] team members were destroyed prior to the issuance of the report, which, presumably, is an amalgamation of their independent impressions and observations. The unavailability of the notes, together with their unwillingness to testify at this trial except through the deposition of Dr. Leventhal, compromised my ability to scrutinize their findings and resulted in a report which was sanitized, and therefore, less credible.” (p 23)

Make sure your expert documents rationale behind conclusions and does not draw conclusions about anyone s/he has not seen. 

“Dr. Herman faulted the Yale-New Haven team for making visitation recommendations without seeing the parent interact with the child; for failing to support adequately their conclusions that Dylan has a thought disorder; for drawing any conclusions about Satchel, whom they never saw; for finding that there was no abuse when the supporting data was inconclusive; and for recommending that Ms. Farrow enter into therapy.” (p 23-24)

Make sure your expert doesn’t say anything ridiculous like they just “know” when someone is not telling the truth.

“He claimed to have an intuitive ability to know if a person is truthful or not. He concluded, “based on my experience”, that Dylan lacked credibility.” (p 24)

Reading the written opinion is disturbing. The level of dysfunction in the Farrow/Allen household appears to have been very high and the judge’s opinion leaves little to the imagination when describing impressions of the adult parties. It is hard to imagine that Yale is particularly proud of the standard of practice by their ‘experts’, if the judge’s characterizations are accurate. It violates both common sense and standards of practice employed by psychologists who do custody evaluations (see the guidelines published by the American Psychological Association). All the more reason to ensure your expert is going to have the highest standards of practice possible and thereby not contribute to a possible miscarriage of justice.



The Sensitivity to Mean Intentions (SeMI) Model

Wednesday, February 12, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

why you gotta be so meanThere are some research models whose names seem silly, or at least named for a Taylor Swift song. Oddly enough, there is a large body of research on those who are “habitually sensitive toward victimization” and it turns out they tend to be uncooperative and immoral in “socially uncertain situations”. Apparently, the suspicion and mistrust generated when you are constantly on high-alert for mistreatment results in negative behavior and expectations. You might think of this as a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’, which is a big problem for these people, because their victimization is also very real.

This article begins with a few descriptive sentences that eloquently describe the internal experience of the person who is “habitually sensitive toward victimization”.

“Trusting someone who should not have been trusted is certainly an aversive experience for everyone; however, people differ in how strongly they worry about becoming the victim of other people’s malicious intentions. And the more people are anxious about ending up being cheated, deceived, and exploited, the more they are sensitive to environmental or social cues associated with untrustworthiness, which, in turn, explains why these people also tend to behave uncooperatively in socially uncertain situations.”

This isn’t really a research article as much as a summary of where the research on the model is currently and where it needs to travel next. We are going to focus on an issue the authors identify as a “suspicious mindset” or “victim sensitivity”.

The authors describe a 10-item measure of “justice sensitivity” which allows one to categorize people with different levels of “sensitivity to mean intentions” through the use of questions such as the following:

It bothers me when others receive something that ought to be mine.

It takes me a long time to forget when I have to fix others’ carelessness.

It makes me angry when I am treated worse than others.

I can’t easily bear it when others profit unilaterally from me.

Our stereotype of “victims” is that they suffer silently. Counter-intuitively, on this scale, people who score high in victim sensitivity tend to “protest and retaliate more strongly” when they are treated unfairly. Of course, most people would reasonably reflect annoyance by the behaviors on the scale, but some people do so more intensely than others. Further, victim sensitivity as measured on this scale reflects concern for the self and not a more global concern of justice for all. Instead, victim sensitivity is related to “jealously, neuroticism, Machiavellianism, paranoia, and a belief in an unjust world, and it predicts uncooperative and even immoral behavior inside and outside the laboratory.”

What is important to know for litigation planning and jury selection is that having high levels of victim sensitivity will mean higher potential for a sudden leap to distrust and suspiciousness (and the resulting inability of the person to reconsider this initial judgment). This could result in an unpredictable negative view of the case facts. It is reasonable to see highly sensitive people as being hyper-critical of anyone who is viewed as victimizing others through their conduct.

Those high in victim sensitivity have what the researchers term a “suspicious mindset” which is negatively related to the willingness to forgive. These are people who would judge harshly and turn a deaf ear toward explanations for behavior.

They will be more likely to “see” cues of untrustworthiness in others but they are less likely to be accurate in their identification of untrustworthiness than those who are not so sensitive to victimization. That is, people who expect to be treated badly tend to see mean people everywhere and therefore exhibit a bias to “see” untrustworthiness where none exists.

It’s an intriguing area for mock trial research. The items on the justice sensitivity scale are not particularly objectionable in content/language, but may be seen as inappropriately personal for voir dire or a supplemental juror questionnaire. The challenge in trial planning may be to find questions or life experiences that correlate well with scores on the scale. For instance, when “The X Files” was a popular show, it also flagged people who were conspiracy theorists and (likely) these kinds of sensitivities. Would fans of other shows now popular be similarly sensitive? Would it correspond to differences between those who live in the exurbs versus the urbanites? Those who have had a bad experience in traffic court or with an insurance claim?

The researchers conclude that “victim sensitivity” represents a “latent fear of being exploited”. We routinely use some questions in our pretrial research that we think tap into that fear but will be adding a few new ones in an attempt to refine our ability to identify those potential jurors who could turn out to be very problematic when it comes to cooperative deliberating. Stay tuned!

Gollwitzer, M., Rothmund, T., & Süssenbach, P. (2013). The sensitivity to mean intentions (SeMI) model: Basic assumptions, recent findings, and potential avenues for future research. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 415-426 DOI: 10.1111/spc3.12041