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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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liar with pinocchio shadowHere is some new research that says while we cannot identify liars through our intuition — there are ways we can increase our ability to identify liars. Most of you know that successful lie detection is not something at which the majority of us are skilled. New research suggests a way to improve deception detection (which we’ve blogged about frequently) and it makes intuitive sense.

Someone should tell our mock jurors who see themselves as expert deception detectors about this work! (See their allegations of lying based on a few minutes of witness deposition excerpts here.)

The researcher, Chris Street, says our ability to detect deception is poor because we are trying to juggle multiple cues we believe indicate deception. Our focus is so scattered that we are not usually successful. Instead, we should perhaps focus on a single cue—such as whether or not the person is obviously thinking hard—as a sign of deception. This is not a matter of improving our access to intuition or our “implicit knowledge” that someone is lying as described in past research. These researchers describe it this way:

“Indirect lie detection does not access implicit knowledge, but simply focuses the perceiver on more useful cues.”

It is not that deep down inside we have the ability to intuit lies if we would just free our intuition—it is simply that we’ve been trying to process too many different small signs (or cues) of deception and diluting our ability to zero in on behaviors associated with deception. The researchers call this an indirect lie detection approach.

In an indirect lie detection approach, you don’t look for signs of deception. Instead you look for behaviors known to be associated with lying. For example, the researchers point to “appears to be thinking hard” or “appears tense” as two behaviors associated with lying. To practice indirect lie detection then, you focus on a “single diagnostic cue” such as “thinking hard” as you appraise a speaker for either accuracy or deception.

In multiple studies, the authors found that when observers focused on the single deception clue of “thinking hard”, their accuracy in deception detection increased.

The researchers say that whether there truly is an “implicit awareness” of deception should be left for others to explore. Instead, we can focus on concrete and behavioral indicators and have improved accuracy. Their findings lead them to suggest that researchers focus on the single most important diagnostic cue and to simply ignore those that are less powerful or not at all indicative of deception. According to the researchers, attempting to apply multiple “signs of deception” as you listen to someone will result in lower levels of accuracy than will watching for one specific diagnostic cue.

We have talked about similar recommendations here before, and think the best way to improve your accuracy is to watch a single strong indicator of whatever behavior you are trying to assess (whether lies or some other behavior) in order to avoid confusion while trying to juggle multiple (and sometimes conflicting) cues to the behavior you are assessing.

Street CN, & Richardson DC (2015). The focal account: Indirect lie detection need not access unconscious, implicit knowledge. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied, 21 (4), 342-55 PMID: 26301728

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memory blindnessThis isn’t really about bad memory—it’s about something much scarier—the power of others to modify your memory without your awareness. New research out of California tells us that it is possible to change the statements of the person giving testimony in such a way that they may not even notice! To make matters worse, it is possible the altered testimony will be so firmly accepted as truth by the fact-teller that they even develop a false memory supporting the account.

The researchers label this effect “memory blindness” and define it as our failure to recognize our own memories. For those of you who remember the flurry of controversies about implanted memories and “False Memory Syndrome” (such as the McMartin Daycare scandal from 1983), and the research done by Ralph Underwager, Elizabeth Loftus, and Richard Ofshe, this will sound familiar. It was seen as something fairly common in children, but this research addresses how susceptible adults are, too.

You may think this impossible but the researchers found it not only possible but disturbingly easy to achieve. The researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, they showed 165 undergraduate student-participants a slideshow of a woman who interacted with three different people—one of whom ultimately stole her wallet. Fifteen minutes after they had watched the slideshow, participants were asked questions similar to what the police would ask (e.g., how tall was the thief, what was the thief wearing) and their responses were written down. Fifteen minutes after that response, the participants were shown their responses in written form but, the researchers had randomly changed three of their answers so they were incorrect. The researchers let another 15 minutes pass and then asked the participants the same “police type” questions to see if they changed their answers.

The majority of the group did not notice their responses had been changed and when asked the questions the second time, repeated the information that was not what they had initially reported but instead was the incorrect information inserted by the researchers.

As an aside, only 18% said they thought “something was odd” in how the experiment was conducted. The researchers do not know what the other 82% were thinking but had to assume they did not notice anything amiss with their responses.

In the second experiment, the researchers gathered 379 participants to watch a slide show of a man stealing a radio from a car. This time, instead of asking the participants what they had seen happen, they were asked to pick the thief out of a photo lineup (with “relatively dissimilar faces”). The misinformation in this second study was telling the participants they had selected a different person from the lineup than they had originally identified.

Over half (53.7%) changed their answer in the final photo array to match the false feedback—which means that 47.3% realized their choices had been changed.

The researchers say that eye witnesses given typed copies of their statements to sign may not notice errors (due to typographical mistakes or more nefarious reasons) and that reviewing their incorrect statements alone may contaminate their memories. Even though almost anyone would say that they wouldn’t fall for this kind of mistake, the majority of participants did not notice changes and modified their reports to match inaccurate reports of past behavior.

Still others might say the police would never alter statements intentionally, and to them we would encourage a review of the Hillsborough disaster in the UK (more than 25 years ago) where almost 100 people were crushed to death during a football match. A recent inquest uncovered the reality that eye-witness testimonies had been “deliberately altered” by the police.

It is disturbing to realize that our memories can be so easily messed with by researchers and more disturbing to see examples of the same thing done by the police. While we’ve blogged before about the lack of reliability of eye-witness testimony, this is certainly another one to add to the list of reasons to question the memory of those who assert they “saw it with my own eyes”. If memory can be altered in as short a time delay as 15 minutes, it can certainly be altered over the time it takes a case to come to trial.

Cochran KJ, Greenspan RL, Bogart DF, & Loftus EF (2016). Memory blindness: Altered memory reports lead to distortion in eyewitness memory. Memory & Cognition PMID: 26884087

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maladaptive daydreamingRemember Walter Mitty? He was a fictional character who escaped his dull day-to-day existence by constructing elaborate daydreams wherein he was the hero rather than a wallflower. Well, apparently Walter was not so unusual. There are people who spend as much as 60% of their time lost in daydreams. These are people who realize their fantasies are not real but find the fantasies so enjoyable they cannot seem to stop engaging in the behavior. They are calling it maladaptive daydreaming.

Maladaptive daydreaming was defined by Eli Somer (in 2002) as “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal or vocational functioning”. Somer also characterizes maladaptive daydreaming as having “themes that typically include highly complex fantasies of social attractiveness, power, fame, and love, as well as other fanciful plots, accompanied by acted out behaviors”.

There is an incredible amount of information on the internet about this condition—driven mostly by people who have it and want to educate others and relieve the isolation that often accompanies the condition. They have created information pages, symptom lists, descriptions of the behavior being uncontrollable by the person experiencing it, and much more.

The Atlantic recently shared a very readable article on the issue by an author who had experienced maladaptive daydreaming. One of the most descriptive sentences is this: “I made a lot of close friends [in college] and had a few boyfriends, but I found it tiring to keep up with their conversations while watching TV in my mind”. The author describes the proliferation of information on the disorder on the internet and concludes that her 12-year-old self (lost in maladaptive daydreaming) was certainly not alone.

One of the researchers mentioned in the Atlantic piece was Eli Somer (who defined the phenomenon) who is one of the authors of the new paper on maladaptive daydreaming we are looking at today. This article offers information on the daydream qualities of 340 “self-identified maladaptive daydreamers” in comparison to 107 controls—all 447 of whom responded to an online announcement for participation and then completed multiple questionnaires on-line. Here are some of the differences researchers identified between “maladaptive daydreamers” and their control subjects:

Maladaptive daydreamers “differed significantly from normative daydreaming in terms of quantity, content, experience, controllability, distress, and interference with life functioning”.

Maladaptive daydreamers reported higher symptoms of “attention deficit, obsessive compulsive and dissociation symptoms than did controls”.

Maladaptive daydreamers reported spending about 57% of their awake hours daydreaming—compared to 16% for control subjects.

Maladaptive daydreamers reported higher levels of difficulty limiting their daydreaming while at the same time being distressed over how much time they spent in daydream than did the control subjects.

There is now a discussion occurring as to whether maladaptive daydreaming is a condition of its own or symptomatic of another condition. Whichever decision is made, the authors believe that maladaptive daydreaming causes significant distress, interferes with life function, and needs more attention.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this is an intriguing description of maladaptive daydreaming. While those who maladaptively daydream report they are rarely confused as to what is fantasy and what is reality—we anticipate this defense could certainly arise in the not to distant future.

An expert might testify that while the defendant did not usually have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality, in this instance the content of the maladaptive daydream was so disturbing, the dreamer sought to defend against a perceived attacker in the real world.

While another expert could counter that argument by pointing to the numbers of maladaptive daydreamers who do not report confusion between fantasy and reality—we suspect any juror hearing about the richness, depth and texture of maladaptive daydreams—and knowing the proportion of awake time invested in maladaptive daydreaming—would conclude it would be hard for the daydreamer to not be confused by the power of maladaptive daydreaming.

Our mock jurors would ask whether someone should not be held responsible for their actions while also getting treatment for a debilitating condition—they always want to address personal responsibility, and that would certainly be a good point for the prosecution to make. We foresee a lively deliberation room debate if this one ever makes it to the courtroom.

Bigelsen J, Lehrfeld JM, Jopp DS, & Somer E (2016). Maladaptive daydreaming: Evidence for an under-researched mental health disorder. Consciousness and Cognition, 42, 254-66 PMID: 27082138

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