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euphemism treadmillIt’s a constantly moving target. Just over a year ago, we wrote about this on-going question and cited a Gallup Poll saying 65% of Black Americans have no preference when it comes to labels used to describe their racial or ethnic group. The authors of today’s research article would disagree. They say there are consequences (and loads of meaning) behind the two labels.

Stephen Pinker first coined the phrase euphemism treadmill in 1994. The phrase refers to a descriptive term that was once acceptable, but has now become pejorative. An example would be the word “crippled”, replaced by “handicapped”, which was then replaced by the phrase “person with disabilities” or, in some circles, “differently challenged”. When you write, and use an outdated, once acceptable but now pejorative phrase, you run the risk of being seen as biased, unaware, old school, or downright insensitive.

So, in 2013, Gallup said it really didn’t matter. Today’s writers demonstrate, via four separate studies, that we have very different associations to the labels “African-American” and “Black”. Specifically, we make assumptions about “Blacks” being lower in social status, less educated, and less competent than the “African-American”. In brief, here are their findings:

The label “Black” signals lower social class and status than does the label “African-American”. Further, the label “Black” evokes more negative stereotype content (as well as assumptions of lower status and less feelings of warmth) than does the label “African-American”.

Media articles on crime reports are more negative in emotional tone when they use the label “Black” then when they use the label “African-American”.

Whites view a criminal suspect more negatively when s/he is identified as “Black” rather than “African-American”.

The dilemma with these two polarizing labels (“Black” and “African-American) is that White observers are attaching presumptions based on racial labels. Instead of using either of these long-standing descriptors, these authors propose the use of a new descriptor: Americans of African Descent (AADs). Their belief is that use of a new label will short-circuit the stereotypes (positive and negative) that accompany the currently used labels and require judgements to occur based on the individual. Whether this will catch on or not, is anyone’s guess. But, staying on top of trends and labels is an important part of the work for all of us.

So, is it “Black” or is it “African-American”?

Or, should it perhaps be “Americans of African Descent”?

As mentioned above, Gallup says it doesn’t seem to really matter to the target individuals being described. But today’s authors say it matters a lot to the listener as “Black” and “African-American” have become cognitive shortcuts for many of us. So what to say?

The cynical might say it all depends on the reaction you want to evoke in the listener. That would mean that if you want to evoke a less positive attribution to a person, use the word “Black”, and if you want to imbue them with more of an upscale aura, use “African-American”. Either can be used to evoke the more negative or the more positive associations.

Our guess would be it’s a lot more nuanced than that. While there were a few more than 370 participants across four studies, we would like to see a bit larger sample to ascertain whether this stereotyping of racial labels occurs across the country or if it is limited to certain regions. We also don’t really know what stereotypes might arise if someone was described as an “American of African Descent”. Further, who knows how long the new label will encounter resistance, or how and when it might be co-opted by time.

In short, it’s an intriguing variable to consider. Are we indeed evoking racial stereotypes when we describe individuals as either “Black” or “African-American”? Is that what we really mean to do?

Hall, EV, Phillips, KW, & Townsend, SSM (2014). A rose by any other name? The consequences of subtyping “African-Americans” from “Blacks”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 

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Brittany-MaynardBrittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman with an aggressive and terminal brain cancer who announced her intention to take her life, has put a face on the “death with dignity” movement. Her announcement that she would take her life thanks to Oregon’s right to die laws, spurred many “offers” of advice for her. Cannabis for cancer, stem cell therapy, choose life, and multiple offers of vitamin cures, dietary changes, and other ideas proliferate in comment sections.

Others in the comment sections express the idea that Maynard herself comments on in her video–i.e., no one else can know what is best for her and many comment they wish this option of choosing the time of death had been available to their loved ones who died of cancer. Maynard initially said she would die on November 2, but then, as the date approached, changed her mind saying it simply “wasn’t the right time yet” although she ultimately did take her life on November 1. Brittany Maynard has achieved her goal of a national discussion on death with dignity.

It’s an issue that the Pew Research Center also highlighted recently, saying it is an issue that divides America. Here are some of the attitudes Pew reported in their October 22, 2014 report on American attitudes toward doctor-assisted suicide laws.

While 2/3 of Americans say there are circumstances where a patient should be allowed to die, there is more division over allowing doctor-assisted suicides for the terminally ill. Pew says Americans are almost evenly split on the issue “with 47% in favor of such laws and 49% opposed. Views on doctor-assisted suicide are little changed since 2005.”

Surprisingly, there is no real difference in attitudes toward doctor-assisted suicide by age group: “Maynard’s generation is no more supportive of such laws than are older Americans: 45% of those ages 18-29 approve of assisted-suicide laws, while 54% oppose them.”

Maynard post insert

It’s an intriguing topic to consider in the context of jury selection. We agree with the Pew finding that young Americans have given little thought to end of life issues. But our experience has been that while our mock jurors have abstract beliefs about hot-button issues, when they see and hear the facts of a story and are faced with the obstacles and experiences of a Plaintiff–they often change their minds about how they would feel “in the Plaintiff’s shoes”.

One especially powerful pretrial research project we conducted showed a “day in the life” video of the Plaintiff who was paralyzed and had made clear his wish to be allowed to die (repeatedly). One male juror quietly muttered that the Plaintiff could not even raise a hand to achieve his goal. Others grimly nodded. In that case, there was consensus in the deliberation room as to what “should” be allowed to happen.

It’s a powerful thing to consider. We can “know” how we think we feel. But once we are in a horrible position, like Brittany Maynard has faced, the choices we will make are ones that could well be foreign to use before we were forced to consider them. Telling your client’s story without the use of “hot button phrases” that will keep jurors from listening could result in an outcome unexpected if you are predicting juror behavior from current research polls.

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overconfidence-man-3Many have written about men being over-confident in comparison to women–although all of us may be more confident in our abilities than we generally should be. Prior research has shown us that men are more confident than women, and that happy people tend to view themselves more positively and happy people actually often perform better on quizzes and other tasks. So today’s researchers asked 107 undergraduates recruited from introductory courses required of all students (57 male and 50 female) to participate in their study.

First, the participants completed a half-hour quiz containing 20 trivia questions (samples of which can be found here) and 10 arithmetic problems. Then half of them watched nature scenes from Alaska’s Denali National Park while half listened to Robin Williams Live on Broadway comedy sketch. (This experiment was conducted several years prior to Robin Williams’ death.) After watching these video stimuli, the participants were asked to estimate how well they had done on the quiz and given financial incentive to guess correctly. Participants were offered $5 for guessing precisely correctly, $3 for guessing within three points, and just $1 for guessing within six points of their actual score.

And here is some of what the researchers found:

Men were more confident than women (overestimating their scores by about four points to women’s overestimation of two points on average).

Men who watched Robin Williams’ stand-up comedy performance overestimated their scores by 2 points more than those men who watched the nature scenes.

Women who watched the comedy performance were in no way different in terms of estimation of their test scores than were women who watched peaceful nature scenes.

The researchers think men and women regulate their emotions differently (although both genders found the Robin Williams video funny) and that men may be more grandiose after watching a master of comedy, thus inflating their score estimates even more. The researchers suggest we can all benefit from an awareness of how our mood affects our behavior. They suggest employees may wish to (prior to important decisions or meetings) “proactively put him- or her-self into a good mood”, but evidently there are limits to how far that should be taken. And they do not suggest concrete strategies to achieve this goal.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this research offers a caution to male litigators. It is important to maintain your confidence, but don’t get carried away. The end result could be, although one study of 100 undergraduates is hardly conclusive, that jurors may see you as cocky and arrogant (i.e., over-confident) rather than a sincere advocate for your client. At the very least, know that in order to connect with your jury you need to be able to relate to where they are (emotionally and cognitively), and the jurors haven’t likely be watching comedies on the internet while they wait for the trial to get underway. Robin Williams is likely to put you over the top.

Ifcher, J., & Zarghamee, H. (2014). Affect and overconfidence: A laboratory investigation. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics, 7 (3), 125-150 DOI: 10.1037/npe0000022

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online pornWe can hear the snickers and gasps now–and likely the immediate objection from (probably) the opposing counsel or (unquestionably) the judge. But not always. So why might this be something you want to know? According to new research in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, a distinguishing characteristic of narcissists is that they watch more porn online. That actually makes intuitive sense since narcissists would want to avoid rejection and objectify others as sexual objects. We are not sure how you would get this sort of question in though–unless the case actually involved online pornography.

More interesting to us (by far) was the information on the frequency of porn viewing online. For the study, researchers asked 257 participants (aged 18-61 years with an average age of 29 years, 63% female, 89.1% heterosexual, 70% White, 12.1% Hispanic, 7.4% Black, and 10.5% Other) to complete measures of narcissism (using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, the Pathological Narcissism Inventory, and the Index of Sexual Narcissism) and report on the specifics of their internet pornography viewing (they were asked if they had ever viewed, and if they currently viewed internet porn as well as how many minutes per week they viewed internet pornography).

79% reported they had viewed internet porn.

44% reported currently (recently) viewing internet porn.

Current viewers, on average, viewed internet porn 85 minutes per week (or about an hour and a half).

Men spend more time on internet porn (an average of 3 hours per week) than do women (an average of about 1/2 an hour per week).

There was a significant difference in level of narcissism between those (79%) who had ever viewed internet porn and the 21% who had never viewed internet porn.

The researchers comment the sample of those who had viewed porn (the 79%) was skewed by gender since 96% of men reported they had viewed internet porn. Nonetheless, the 4% of men who had not viewed internet porn was lower in narcissism than the 96% who had. As for women, 68% of women had seen internet porn and again, those who had not scored lower in narcissism than women who had seen porn on the internet.

There was also a difference in level of narcissism between those who currently use internet porn for all measures of narcissism. Current users of internet porn (67% of men and 30% of women) were higher in narcissism than were non-current users.

Finally, as the frequency of internet porn use increased, so did the levels of measured narcissism.

What the researchers say is that there is a relationship between “internet pornography use, narcissistic behavior and psychological harm” to the viewer. They believe that using internet porn “inflates an individual’s narcissism (i.e., selfishness, isolation, and entitlement)”. For the researchers, this work focused on narcissism and how it harms relationships.

While we don’t recommend using this as a method for spotting narcissists (the study falls far short of suggesting that), there are clearly cases (copyright cases, sexual violence cases, premises liability cases, and various wrinkles in family law, to name a few) where attorneys and jurors need to be comfortable talking about salacious topics such as this. From a litigation advocacy perspective, this research validates being able to ask about sex and pornography in court* with a reduced fear of offending jurors.

The asterisk is that you need to tell them that virtually all men and over ⅔ of women have watched pornography on the internet. Otherwise, many will feel embarrassment and anxiety. You can normalize by pointing out the truth. When more than 3/4 of a group of 250+ have viewed internet porn, it takes much of the fear of stepping on juror sensibilities away. In fact, you could even say you’ve seen studies saying almost 80% of adults have viewed internet porn at some point in their lives.

There are many times we think the themes in our case are sure to alienate the triers of facts. What we’ve learned in our pretrial research is that when you matter of factly explain the issues, without giggling, blushing, or perspiring, jurors are willing to join you in an adult discussion of case facts.

We’ve also seen glib puns, one-liners, and shared glances with disbelieving grins shared among our mock jurors but they have always been able to quickly redirect their attention when their humor was acknowledged and a focus drawn back to the issues at hand.

Kasper TE, Short MB, & Milam AC (2014). Narcissism and Internet Pornography Use. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 1-6 PMID: 24918657

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morality in everyday life

The researchers recruited a sample of 1,252 adults ranging in age from 18 to 68 years of age who reside in the US and Canada. Each participant completed measures of religiosity and political ideation prior to participation in the actual study. All participants had smartphones and were randomly signaled on their phone for 3 days between 9am and 9pm. “At each signal, participants indicated whether they committed, were the target of, witnessed, or learned about a moral or immoral act within the past hour”.

The participants wrote a text back to the researcher describing the event, where it happened, and completed a scale describing their emotional experience. In total, participants sent in 13,240 text message “reports”.

On close to a third of the text message reports (28.9%), they reported either a moral (15.3%) or an immoral (13.6%) event.

They were more likely to report either committing or being the target of a moral act and more likely to learn about an immoral act. The researchers say the participants were more likely to learn about an immoral act via personal communications–also known as gossiping.

Political ideology was associated with moral content with liberals mentioning events related to fairness/unfairness, liberty/oppression, and honesty/dishonesty, while conservatives were more likely to mention events related to loyalty/disloyalty, sanctity/degradation, and authority/subversion.

There was no real difference in the frequency of positive moral experience by religiosity. Religious people did not commit moral acts more frequently than nonreligious people but they did report fewer immoral experiences (the researchers think this might be a reporting issue rather than one of the religious actually having fewer immoral experiences). Religious people experienced more “intense self-conscious emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, and disgust in response to the immoral deeds they had committed, and more pride and gratefulness in response to moral deeds”.

For all participants, moral acts were associated with higher happiness levels than immoral acts. Benefitting from the good (moral) acts of others resulted in the highest levels of happiness while doing good (moral) acts for others resulted in the highest sense of purpose.

Finally, when participants did a good (moral) act earlier in the day, they were more likely to commit a bad (immoral) act later in the day and less likely to do another good (moral) act.

In other words, we are inveterate gossips. We see the world through our particular political ideology’s lens. Religious people commit the same number of immoral acts as the nonreligious but they feel worse about those acts. Conversely, when behaving well, the religious feel better. We all feel better when we do good and worse when we do bad.  Having someone else do something nice for us makes us happiest but doing something for others gives us the highest sense of purpose. And, finally, if we do something nice at the start of the day, we seem to believe we have a license to act in any way we so choose for the rest of the day.

From the perspective of litigation advocacy–there are some important lessons buried in this very short (4 pages!) article.

We like salaciousness and are likely to pay close attention to it. Where morally questionable behavior might be perceived, it will be. If it concerns you, make sure  you address it– someone on the jury is likely to be guessing something improper occurred. 

Give jurors a choice to do the right thing. They want a constructive motive, not just to punish. That’s what we find our jurors want to do in every case and this research says it will make them feel good and give them a sense of purpose!

We all see the world through our own particular lens–crafted of our attitudes, beliefs, values and political ideology. Make sure to tell your story in a way that focuses on universal values rather than merely pressing hot buttons.

In other words, give jurors something to vote for, not against.

Hofmann W, Wisneski DC, Brandt MJ, & Skitka LJ (2014). Morality in everyday life. Science (New York, N.Y.), 345 (6202), 1340-3 PMID: 25214626

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