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Imacon Color ScannerWe often associate people who are especially trusting with gullibility, low self-esteem, and lower intellectual function. However, we seem to have it backwards according to new research (which successfully replicates the results of studies from 2010 and 2012). 

Intelligent people are more likely to trust others while those lower in intelligence are less likely to be as trusting. The authors think it is due to intelligent people being better at judging character and thus befriending those less likely to betray them. Our take is that while they may or may not be better, they appear to have more confidence in the accuracy of their impressions.

The British researchers analyzed data from the General Social Survey (a public opinion survey administered to a nationally representative sample of US adults every 1-2 years since 1972). Their study is the first to ever use GSS data to look at the relationship between generalized trust and intelligence. Ultimately, they find that intelligence and generalized trust are strongly associated and that, even after “adjusting for intelligence, generalized trust continues to be strongly associated with both self-rated health and happiness”.

Here is their primary finding:

Those with the highest verbal ability are 34% more likely to trust others than those with the lowest verbal ability.

This relationship holds for both “men and women, among both blacks and whites, among the young, the middle-aged and the old, and in all five decades since the GSS began”.

From our general perspective, that’s a pretty fabulous finding. It’s nearly universal as it holds true across gender, age, and ethnicity–as well as across the past forty-two years. We don’t know of many personality descriptor variables that do that.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, it’s a quick way of assessing intellectual function for those situations where you cannot look at educational achievement, management experience, or leadership roles. If you know you want smart jurors, you may want to ask them how trusting they are of others. Or conversely, if you need someone to trust your client beyond the immediate facts, you would do best to pick someone smart enough to keep focused on a broader reality.

Carl N, & Billari FC (2014). Generalized trust and intelligence in the United States. PLoS ONE, 9 (3) PMID: 24619035

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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

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jailcell2You remember the better than average effect. It’s what makes us evaluate ourselves as better than others. I’m a better driver than the average driver. I’m a better swimmer than other non-competitive swimmers. Or even, I’m a better citizen than those who, unlike me, are not in prison. Yes. “I’m in jail. They are not. But, I am more moral, more kind, more self-controlled, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy, and even more honest. I am not, however, more law-abiding than those who are not in jail. Because nobody’s perfect.” 

Those are the findings of a recent study that presents perhaps the strongest evidence for the better than average effect ever. Even when you are locked up as punishment for a crime, you see yourself as better than other prisoners (even more law-abiding than other prisoners) and better than citizens who are not imprisoned on a number of desirable characteristics. If you want an example, consider the recent lengthy interview with Bernie Madoff. Bernie doesn’t claim to be a great guy, just better than the politicians and greedy co-beneficiaries of his larceny.

British researchers tested 85 convicted inmates (age ranged from 18 to 34 years with an average age of 20.4 years–no information was given on other demographic descriptors) at an English prison. They were imprisoned for a variety of offenses although the majority were crimes against people and 17.7% chose the option “prefer not to say” when asked about their offense. There was ultimately no relationship between offense committed and the inmate scores on the better than average effect.

The inmates were told they were participating in a study of self-perception. They were asked to perform three different tasks: first to rate themselves compared to the average prisoner; second to compare themselves to the average member of the community; and third to complete demographic questionnaires containing demographic information. The characteristics they were asked to rate themselves on during the first and second tasks were: being moral, being kind, being more self-controlled, more law-abiding, more compassionate, more generous, more dependable, more trustworthy and more honest.

Participants rated themselves better than the average prisoner on all of these traits.

Participants rated themselves better than the average community member on all traits except that of being law-abiding. Importantly, while the prisoners did not rate themselves as more law-abiding than the average community member, they rated themselves as equally law-abiding as the average (not imprisoned) community member.

The researchers are taken aback by this last finding and wonder if the findings “raise issues regarding the self-views of other groups who have especially poor skills or detrimental behavior habits”. For example, they ask, “Do students on academic probation believe that they have better than average academic skills? Do serial divorcees think they are better marital partners than the average spouse? Do people who overeat, smoke cigarettes, and fail to exercise think they have average or better than average health habits? If so, the prospects for people in these categories to improve their abilities and characteristics are not promising.”

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this certainly has implications for witness preparation and for how your client presents him or herself. That witness who seems to refuse to take advice might actually think they’re the best witness ever. Sometimes it’s enough to show a witness how they come across on video (so prep them with a camera and show him or her the ways they undermine themselves). If that doesn’t help and the budget permits, holding a focus group– however low-budget might be required– can make a big difference. Our stubbornness usually fades in the face of people mocking us or describing why they dislike us. It is an experience both painful and sobering.

Like the recently viral deposition videos for Justin Bieber demonstrate, most of us are not as smart and clever as we would like to imagine.

Sedikides C, Meek R, Alicke MD, & Taylor S (2014). Behind bars but above the bar: Prisoners consider themselves more prosocial than non-prisoners. The British Journal of Social Psychology PMID: 24359153

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anti semiteRecently, we were doing a mock trial and came to the part of the day when jurors were discussing impressions of the witnesses. One of the female jurors mentioned a witness seemed “depressed and beat down” and that she had been surprised by his demeanor. An older white male snorted and said, “Surprised? You’ve never been to New York City. I guarantee you, one in three business men in New York City look just like him.” The woman expressed confusion, and the man expounded further, “He’s a Jew….Now I don’t mean nothin’ bad by that.” 

There was a silence in the room for a few seconds and the young Hispanic male seated next to the man speaking leaned back in his chair and looked at the observation mirror/window in disbelief. The older white male seemed a little confused by the silence in the room and then added less forcefully, “I’m not against the Jews.” The facilitator gently stated that while the mock juror may not “mean anything negative”, he was certainly voicing negative stereotypes. The juror seemed confused (mumbling his way out of the unintended disclosure and falling silent) and the facilitator moved on with the debriefing.

Sometimes people have no filter, so they say what they are thinking without realizing how offensive it might be to others in the room. Over the years, we have seen many examples of this. Another example that comes to mind today was when an older white female commented in a group also containing young African-American and Hispanic jurors that “those Mexicans will do whatever you tell them to do”. She was gently corrected by an older African-American male and no one else spoke up. But during the next break, the group of young mock jurors who were African-American and Hispanic lagged behind and when the rest had cleared the room, they burst out laughing. They all spoke at once: “Oh no she didn’t!” and “Can you believe that?” and “I just moved here from California and I cannot believe what some people here say out loud”. This was a gracious group of jurors.

More often, bias is spoken about in code and no one says exactly what they mean. One code we’ve learned here in Texas is that random references to people from “New York City” is code for some anti-Semitic sentiment. Bias, in many forms and guises, is crucial to discern. And oddly, it is at its most insidious when the bias is completely irrelevant to the facts of the case.

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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). http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/content/overview/overview.pdf

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