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2016 storytelling1Every once in a while, I read something and think, “I could have written that!” and today it happened again. There is a deceptively simple blog post over at the Scientific American site that is actually a wonderful treatise on how to bring life to something complicated and esoteric so that people will actually understand and even care about what you are saying.

You likely remember Alan Alda from the TV show MASH but may not know that he has quite an interest in science and has spent a great deal of time and effort helping scientists figure out how to tell their stories of discovery in an engaging way. The blog post we are pointing you to today is written by a theater professional who works with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science but we think it’s a post easy to apply to high-tech patent or IP cases or other cases about an esoteric concept, a complex process, or medical mysteries that do not involve the living (as is the case with the upcoming blog post). .

The post tells the story of a scientist who’d won a contest for discovering something novel and significant but as he told the story of the discovery, it was dry and filled with jargon. This brief blog post shows how the scientist was helped tell a story that grabbed the emotion of the listener and you can even see before and after videos of the story itself.

Here’s the blog post: How to tell an engaging story of scientific discovery.

And here is the before and after video (with the differences in video quality explained in the blog post itself).

We like to say “every story is about people” and based on the blog post linked to above and the video showing you how the story presentation was changed—it looks like Alan Alda agrees.


Comments Off on Telling an engaging story about something complicated 

liberal-vs-conservative 2016It’s a basic tenet of the reptile theory that you want to frighten your jurors to make them vote for your client in deliberation. [The ABA has put out an open-access primer on the reptile theory and you can see that here.] It is also been shown repeatedly that conservatives are more fearful than liberals, but now we have research telling us that if you terrify a liberal, they think more like conservatives. We’ve seen the results of fear in multiple pretrial research with mock jurors but we do not think the reptile theory particularly original. It seems to be an adept repackaging of the terror management theory but it is certainly marketed persuasively as the “only way to win”.

So, on to today’s research. Researchers from the UK analyzed data from two nationally representative surveys (completed about 6 weeks before and about a month after the July 7, 2005 bombings in London). As a reminder, in the bombings in London, the bombs went off on the public transport system. The explosion led to the death of 52 people and injuries to 770 and were part of an Al Qaeda attack carried out by several Britain-born Muslims and a Jamaican Muslim immigrant. (In the event you wonder why this is only being published now, the data just recently became available.)

The researchers looked at questions that represented “four moral foundations”:

In-group loyalty (“I feel loyal to Britain despite any faults it may have”)

Authority-respect (“I think people should follow rules at all times, even when no one is watching”)

Harm-care (“I want everyone to be treated justly, even people I don’t know. It is important for me to protect the weak in society.”)

Fairness-reciprocity (“There should be equality for all groups in Britain”)

Then they looked at the level of agreement with this statement on Muslims (“Britain would lose its identify if more Muslims came to live in Britain”) and this statement about immigrants (“Government spends too much money assisting immigrants”). They wondered if beliefs about Muslims and immigrants would be more negative following the terror bombings and….attitudes were more negative.

However, attitudes were not more negative for everyone! Only liberals attitudes became more negative while conservatives attitudes remained about the same. The researchers believe the liberals were “terrified” and thus more negativity was reported directed at Muslims and immigrants and they wonder if when conservatives experience terror—does it work to consolidate their perspective and make them more resistant to change?

In other words, conservatives hunkered down in their pre-existing beliefs and liberals rushed to join them. The authors make this comment about implications for their research:

“For people working to tackle prejudice, it is important to be aware that terror events may have different effects on the attitudes of people who start from different political orientations. Among people who tend to be conservative, such events may consolidate their existing priorities, making them resistant to change. Among people who tend to be liberal, the same events may prompt a shift in their priorities and propel them toward more prejudiced attitudes.”

It’s an interesting finding when considering the reptile approach since it would support long-standing terror management theory beliefs that say when you are threatened, you seek safety. Apparently, for liberal Brits, safety was found in numbers among their own kind (and conservative Brits were more “like the” liberal Brits than were the terrorist Muslim immigrants). So, let’s say opposing counsel has frightened your jurors to death (metaphorically speaking). What can you do to (quickly) help them feel safe again?

While we feel a need to make clear that we have never tried any of these in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, here are a couple of strategies you can employ to counteract the reptile approach.

Ultimately, we still like this strategy (blogged about earlier) to counteract the fear purposely instilled by the litigator employing the reptile approach—we even called it the anti-reptile theory and have used it to good effect at trial.

Our colleague Ken Broda-Bahm also wrote an article in The Jury Expert on the Defense approach to the reptile theory at trial.

Van de Vyver, J., Houston, D., Abrams, D., & Vasiljevic, M. (2015). Boosting Belligerence: How the July 7, 2005, London Bombings Affected Liberals Moral Foundations and Prejudice Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797615615584



Comments Off on When terrified, liberals end up thinking a lot more like  conservatives

mom in prisonWhile idealistically we might want to think people whose mom is (or was) in prison would view their Mom’s plight as a cautionary tale, and be less likely to go to prison themselves, a new study shows that “children of incarcerated mothers are twice as likely to be arrested, convicted and incarcerated as adults”. The study was completed by researchers at Sam Houston State University and is based on findings from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health (a 20 year study following a nationally representative sample of those who were in 7th to 12th grades in 1994-1995).
Here is a sampling of what the researchers describe as “unintended consequences of maternal incarceration”:

Women make up only 7% of the overall prison population but growth in the rate of incarceration for females is surpassing males (64% increase for women between 1991 and 2011 compared to a 22% increase for men during that same time frame). The researchers say the growth in incarceration rates for women reflect sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimum sentencing, enhanced sentences for certain crimes and the war on drugs.

Two-thirds of the women in prison are mothers and those children are more likely to live with relatives away from home, which, say the researchers, “increases the risk of attachment disruptions, separation anxiety, depression, sadness, and preoccupation with the loss of a parent”.

Adult children of incarcerated mothers were only half as likely to be college graduates.

Children with incarcerated mothers were significantly more likely to be involved in delinquent behavior or to have close peers who were engaging in delinquent behavior. It was also more likely that their fathers had also spent time in prison.

Adult children of incarcerated mothers were also nearly twice as likely to “report an adult arrest, an adult conviction, and an adult incarceration”.

It’s a sad set of statistics and we’ve only included some of the findings. Having an “absent mother”, say the researchers, increases the likelihood that children will be involved in the criminal justice system in the future. However, having an incarcerated mother has a much stronger effect—although at this point, we do not know enough to know if there is a differing impact on male and female children with an incarcerated mother.

While we don’t take issue with the authors about their conclusions, it can’t be ignored that the children of an incarcerated woman are likely subject to the same socio-economic forces that played a part in shaping their mother. Drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, incomplete or inadequate education, et cetera. Add to that the chaos of losing a mother, and it starts to feel amazing that any kid could climb out of that environment and lead a traditional, pro-social life. The ripple effect of maternal imprisonment involves a cost to society far greater than merely that single incarceration.

While some of these numbers are likely due to socioeconomic status, education, and poor adult role models, it is frightening to think of just how many children are going to end up in the criminal justice system as more and more women (who are also mothers) are incarcerated. It’s a call for fathers to step up but also a reminder to us as a society that we need to consider the unintended consequences of societal choices to incarcerate the parents of children and take steps to protect children from negative choices that will perpetuate the cycle of incarceration down the generations.

Muftic, L., Bouffard, L., & Armstrong, G. (2015). Impact of Maternal Incarceration on the Criminal Justice Involvement of Adult Offspring: A Research Note. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 53 (1), 93-111 DOI: 10.1177/0022427815593988


Comments Off on Mom in prison? You are at risk for going too… 

steven-avery-1024Last year over the holidays, I binge-listened to Serial (the podcast story of Adnan Syed) and apparently it is a new holiday tradition—because this year I ended up binge-watching a 10-hour documentary series (from the Defense perspective) called Making a Murderer. I won’t link to the show since there are spoilers everywhere but it proves yet again that fact is stranger than fiction.

This is the story of Steven Avery, a young man with an IQ in the 70s from a rough and tumble family with a bad reputation in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Somehow, despite the fact there was no physical evidence tying him to the crime, he was convicted of sexual assault and spent 18 years in prison until DNA testing evolved to the point that the Wisconsin Innocence Project took on the case. He was exonerated while another prison inmate was charged with the crime. So he is out of prison and says he is happy to be free and left all of his anger inside prison. He filed a wrongful conviction suit against Manitowoc County and then even worse things begin to happen.

His family owns an auto salvage yard and 40 acres of land. One day a woman came to photograph a car Steven Avery’s sister is trying to sell. She disappeared, and suddenly her vehicle was discovered on the Avery’s land with Steven Avery’s blood in it and her bones are discovered in several burn pits on the Avery property (with the primary burn site right behind Steven’s house). The evidence is largely circumstantial but, once again, he is convicted and returned to prison, where he remains today. Along the way, his 16-year-old nephew (who is learning disabled with an IQ of 70) was interrogated alone for hours and gives information (fed to him by the investigators as we see in the film) that he participated actively in the crime along with his uncle.

What is fascinating about this case is that we are privy to the defense attorneys reactions and case strategy and to the shocking machinations of the Manitowoc police and the Calumet County DA (disgraced and no longer in office after a 2010 sexting scandal in which he referred to a domestic abuse victim as a “hot nymph” and himself as her “prize”—remember that thing about fact being stranger than fiction?). While, as with Serial, I was unsure at the end if the defendant had murdered anyone. The criminal justice system is shown as flawed and the possible consequences that can befall you when you are accused of a crime are terrifying.

I was initially drawn to this documentary because of the wrongful conviction and false confession angle since we have done work in that area and it is frighteningly easy to lean on defendants and get confessions out of them—especially when they are young and not very bright. It is yet another well-done project that shows the underbelly of the criminal justice system and the problems of poor people and the mentally impaired. In the final segment, there is a group discussion among the attorneys that represented Steven at various points in time about whether they think he has any hope for a second exoneration and there is a quote by one of his defense attorneys (Dean Strang) that took my breath away. Watch for it. It’s about how part of him really, really hopes Steven Avery is guilty since the alternative is just too frightening to contemplate.

This is a documentary well worth watching and knowing about as it is already becoming “must-see-TV”. Just be prepared knowing you won’t want to stop watching. The first episode has also been uploaded to YouTube.

And once you are done with this, season two of Serial has premiered and it is focusing on the story of Bowe Bergdahl.


Comments Off on Making a murderer: A Netflix documentary worth  binge-watching

Four (new) ways to identify a liar…. 

Monday, January 4, 2016
posted by Douglas Keene

liar pinocchio 2015We’ve tracked the literature on deception detection for some time now and so were glad to see recent multiple new entries in the pursuit of identifying liars. Rather than blogging about these strategies one at a time, here’s a combined entry to let you know about them all in a single post.

Are children good liars?

Apparently, even kids are good liars. A 2011 experiment showed that 3-6 year old children who lied about parent’s transgressions were able to fool adults—although forensic interviewers were able to identify lies from older children at a higher rate of accuracy than they were with younger children.  Evidently, you really can’t trust a pre-schooler.

Need to lie effectively? Drink lots and lots of water

Here’s a strange one. Recent research (cited at the end of this post) shows that if you have to urinate, you are able to lie more effectively. The study is small (22 participants) and it is unwise to generalize from such a small group. Aldert Vrij, a leading researcher in the field of deception detection, questions whether we should even publish research telling people how to be better liars.

How do people behave when they are lying?

During focus group and mock trial deliberations, we often hear mock jurors discussing their ways of “knowing” when someone is lying. Usually this involves eye movements, gaze direction, touching one’s nose, covering one’s mouth, answering too quickly, answering too slowly, and other ‘foolproof strategies’ the individual mock juror has perfected for identifying liars. Unfortunately for the mock jurors, most of these strategies are useless. But the mock jurors think they are windows into the soul of the witness, so we work to remove those sorts of distracting nonverbal behaviors when prepping witnesses for testimony. New research from the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Applied says rather than relying on intuition to identify liars—we would do better to pay attention to specific behaviors such as whether the speaker appears to be thinking really hard while talking.

“We often think of nonverbal behavior when we think of deception. But it would be better to focus on the content of the tale people are selling us, and asking if it is consistent with other facts we know. But even then there is a large amount of room for error.”

In thousands of juror and mock-juror interviews about witness credibility, their judgments on credibility often seem to serve as methods for simplifying the case. If the witness is credible but contradicts another witness who also seems credible, what are they to do? Determining by any method available that one of the witnesses looked shifty when they looked to the side, or they drank water which means they are nervous about telling a lie, their job becomes simpler.

It might be better to let machines catch liars

We know most of us are not very good at identifying liars. Most people are barely above chance in their ability to know who is telling the truth and who is lying. But a new “machine learning algorithm” is purportedly able to identify truth-tellers correctly about 75% of the time. Wow. Here’s the pdf of the article and below is a snippet of information on how the work was done:

“Mihalcea and her colleagues took 121 videos from sources such as the Innocence Project, a non-profit group in Texas dedicated to exonerating people with wrongful convictions. This is superior to simulated conversation because the speakers are more invested in what they are saying.Transcriptions of the videos that included the speaker’s gestures and expressions were fed into a machine learning algorithm, along with the trial’s outcome. To hone it further, the team plans to feed in even more data. Such a system could one day spot liars in real-time in court or at airport customs, says Mihalcea, who will present the work at the International Conference on Multimodal Interaction this month in Seattle, Washington.”

Fenn, E., Blandón-Gitlin, I., Coons, J., Pineda, C., & Echon, R. (2015). The inhibitory spillover effect: Controlling the bladder makes better liars. Consciousness and Cognition, 37, 112-122 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2015.09.003


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