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how women leadWe’ve written about women and leadership before. While some new research shows female leaders handle stress more effectively than male leaders, we’re not going to write about that one today. Instead, here is a report on a study showing some other good news: women are no longer punished for behaving assertively in a leadership role!

It’s a positive change. The past research showed us that women who were assertive were seen negatively due to perceived violations of their gender role expectations. That is, men are assertive and women are sweet. And when women are not sweet, we call them witches (or something like that). So. The news that what these researchers call “agentic behavior” (i.e., acting like a leader) is now acceptable for women (as long as they are not aggressive and ruthless as they exhibit leadership behavior) is good news indeed.

Alas, though. Every silver lining seems to have a cloud and the battle is not yet won. As it happens, while women are now evaluated just as positively as men leaders for behaving assertively in their leadership role–women leaders who are tentative or submissive are rated much more negatively than are tentative or submissive men who lead. Leaders frequently fake their confidence and strength, but if a woman is seen as doing that, reactions they get are worse than those accorded to men.

The researchers used 185 participants (47% female, average age 28.3 years, either undergraduate students or graduates from an Australian university) who were told they were participating in a study on effective communication. The participants read a transcript of a speech (on climate change) which was identified as being given by an Independent (non-party-affiliated) candidate for national office. They were told the speech was given by a female (Annette Hayes or Susan Hayes) or a male (David Hayes or Andrew Hayes).

The speech itself was written in either an assertive voice (indicating dominance, confidence and strength) or a tentative voice (indicating deference, hesitancy, and a lack of confidence). After reading the transcripts, the participants rated the candidate’s likability and influence (i.e., how persuasive they were and therefore how likely to convince others of their position). They also rated the leaders on agency (i.e., how dominant, forceful and confident they were) and communality (i.e., how friendly, sensitive and warm they were).

Assertive female leaders were rated more likable than tentative female leaders but there was no difference in likability between the assertive and tentative male leaders. Further, while there was no difference in likability between assertive male and assertive female leaders, tentative males were more likable than tentative females.

Assertive female leaders were significantly more influential with participants than were the tentative female leaders. There was no difference in influence exerted on participants between the assertive and tentative male leaders. Further, while participants saw no difference in influence by the assertive women and assertive men leaders, they saw the tentative man as more influential than the tentative woman.

In other words, say the authors, women in political leadership will only be as effective as men if they are always confident, strong and decisive. When their behavior deviates from these male-stereotypic leadership ideals, they will be punished far more than their male counterparts. A follow-up study found the same pattern. The authors summarize their findings as follows:

“Based on men’s continued dominance in positions of power, expectations of women to show unwavering signs of confidence and strength will provide a considerable challenge. While a few women will be able to meet this expectation, the majority who cannot remain disadvantaged, with men avoiding similar penalties for equivalent non-agentic behaviors. Therefore, this subtle form of prejudice towards women demands our attention and effort if gender equality is to be achieved.”

It’s a societal double standard recently highlighted by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. When male leaders display emotion– even inappropriate emotion– it is often celebrated. When women display even a little emotion, it is interpreted very negatively. It’s a good thing to keep in mind as you consider the behavior and leadership potential of male and female attorneys. We are all subject to bias– until we pay attention to it. Merely by being conscious of its potential, it can become a much smaller problem.

Bongiorno, R., Bain, P., & David, B. (2013). If you’re going to be a leader, at least act like it! Prejudice towards women who are tentative in leader roles. British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12032



some of my best friends areIt’s a common line, typically heard right before some sort of slur. It reminds me of the ‘friends’ who make some ruthless joke at the expense of someone, then say “Hey, I was only kidding! Some of my best friends are Black/Gay/Women/Disabled/Old.”

New work from the researcher who wrote Racist Roads Not Taken, says what we probably knew all along: it’s a self-protective move, masking the underlying bias the speaker is trying to avoid disclosing. We don’t want others to think we are racist/homophobic/sexist/ or biased against the disabled or old(er) folks. So we protest, like Lady MacBeth, just a bit too much.

Daniel Effron is following up on his earlier work to explain why, based on more than mere intuition and anecdote, we tend to defend decisions that might make us seem biased to others, by invoking the presence of our “friends”. Essentially, Effron calls this tendency a defensive reaction in response to a sense our “moral identity” is being threatened/questioned. In other words, the belief that we might be seen as racist (or homophobic, sexist, ageist or biased against the disabled) results in us overestimating how past “non-discriminatory” actions or choices are indicative of our actual lack of bias against the current target group.

One question raised by Effron is “does over-estimating the value of your ‘non-racist credentials’ work?” That is, do observers see your reported history of having a Black friend or of standing up for a gay colleague at work as indicative of a lack of prejudice? It must work, right? Otherwise why would it be such a common strategy? Turns out it doesn’t really work at all. Others see right through us:

Overestimating your non-racist credentials (e.g., saying you are not racist because you have a Black friend) is more likely to be seen as prejudiced than underestimating your non-racist credentials (e.g., not justifying your decision).

It’s probably more common than we think and Effron’s seven studies show our tendency is to “protest too much” in our own defense, over and over again. We want others to see us positively. Unfortunately, those self-protective (“I really am a good person”) protests have the opposite effect from what we intend since others see the excuse/explanation itself as a sign of prejudice.

Effron does identify multiple strategies we can use when our moral identity is questioned. We can act virtuously, distort our memory of our [past] moral track record, or lower our standards for what we believe will count as moral credentials [this is what happened in the current research findings]. Regardless of how we make efforts to magnify or overestimate our moral credentials, observers will likely find us wanting. In short, it’s probably better to just keep your mouth shut rather than put your foot in it.

An unrelated observation that we reflect on from time to time in our work on cases with issues or themes that touch on social evolution is that of the tipping point. At what point does society start looking at an issue or an action as being socially unacceptable? It varies depending on various factors including the societal subset one moves in, region of the country, and economic security. For example, gay rights was not a widely embraced value a decade ago, and now it is a foregone fact of life. Legalization of marijuana was controversial less than a decade ago, and now a majority of the country favors it. There is always a mountain to climb in terms of cultural bias, though, and the challenge will remain to be aware of who the social out-groups are, and how to neutralize bias against our clients and key witnesses. It always boils down to who is “not like me”, or “not like people I love”.

Effron DA (2014). Making Mountains of Morality From Molehills of Virtue: Threat Causes People to Overestimate Their Moral Credentials. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin PMID: 24793359



spite voodoo dollWe’ve been down this road before and brought you the Depravity Scale, the Comprehensive Assessment of Sadistic Tendencies Scale, the Guilt and Shame Proneness Scale and the Islamophobia Scale. Now however, it’s time for a check on how spiteful you are. We all know spite when we see it. Dawdling in their parking space because someone is hovering, waiting to get in. Deliberately slowing down on the highway to irritate a tailgater. Spreading gossip that is perhaps less than wholly true because a co-worker angered you. My mother described it as “cutting off your nose to spite your face”. The list is endless. There is even an old Eastern European folk tale where a genie offers a man anything he wishes–providing his hated neighbor gets double the prize. And the spiteful man says, “Genie, put out one of my eyes.” Spite has been with us a long, long time. But now, it is possible to measure one’s spitefulness. Scientifically. In case we want to. Researchers have recently published a 17-item measure of spitefulness. As they developed the scale, they learned some interesting things.

Men are more spiteful than women.

Young adults are more spiteful than older adults.

Ethnic minority members were more spiteful than members of ethnic majorities.

And spitefulness is often accompanied by aggression, psychopathy, narcissism, callousness [low empathy and low kindness], Machiavellianism, guilt-free shame and poor self-esteem. (This one did not come as a surprise.)

However, spitefulness does not tend to co-exist with agreeableness, conscientiousness, self-esteem, or a tendency to feel guilt.

When we are upset, like about partisan politics (when our candidate is losing) or going through a bitter divorce–even agreeable people may have spikes of spitefulness. The authors describe spiteful suicides (intended to traumatize the person who finds them) and spiteful suicides meant to look like homicides framing someone toward whom they (obviously) felt anger and spite. They describe suicide bombers as motivated to get revenge on a hated enemy. Spiteful people are angry. Even if the anger becomes self-destructive. The researchers think the scale is useful in predicting behavior in laboratory settings but also in everyday life (where they see it as contributing to diagnoses of personality disorders and oppositional defiant disorder). They also casually mention applicability to the legal domain where spite has been defined as “the willingness of a litigant to reduce his payoff in order to reduce his opponent’s payoff”. These people would be difficult to mediate with, since they define their self-interest largely in terms of how much distress they can cause the opponent, rather than how much benefit they can achieve for themselves. You can look at the article itself for information on scale development (we will tell you it was scientifically sound) but here, we are skipping right to some sample items because we know you are curious. The scale is only 17 items long and here are a few of the questions used to measure spite.

If a neighbor complained that I was playing my music too loud then I might turn up the music even louder just to irritate him or her, even if it meant I could get fined.

There have been times when I was willing to suffer some small harm so that I could punish someone who deserved it.

I would be willing to take a punch if it meant that someone I didn’t like would receive two punches.

I would consider tapping on my brakes to scare a driver who was tailgating me.

And so on. The idea is that the more items endorsed in a spiteful direction, the more spiteful the person. That makes sense. It is probably true that most of us can be spiteful from time to time, but we know we are being naughty or dumb even while we do it. We don’t embrace it as a life strategy. The question is how often and whether it is a staple of our character. It’s an interesting idea and an intriguing scale to consider. Whether people high in spitefulness are more litigious is a question for future research but it’s an interesting concept to consider as you listen to that new client or applicants for an opening at your firm. Marcus DK, Zeigler-Hill V, Mercer SH, & Norris AL (2014). The Psychology of Spite and the Measurement of Spitefulness. Psychological Assessment PMID: 24548150 Image


Here’s a new issue Table of Contents from The Jury Expert! Brought to you (free) on a quarterly basis by the American Society of Trial Consultants.


Moving From Hapless to Hapful with the Problem Defendant

Bronwen Lichtenstein and Stanley Brodsky write this practical article on how you can work to help modify your hapless client’s visual identity to one that will make a more positive impression in the courtroom. They offer solutions to the ever-present issue of financial costs.

Are Lab Studies on PTP Generalizable?: An Examination of PTP effects Using a Shadow Jury Paradigm

Tarika Daftary-Kapur and Steven Penrod tell us what we all know (except perhaps for the Supreme Court): pretrial publicity DOES have impact! This is new research (that got our trial consultant respondents pretty excited) you certainly want to read and may want to use the next time PTP threatens your potential jury pool.

Beware of the Tricks Used to Encourage a Witness to Volunteer

Merrie Jo Pitera writes this practical article on how to keep your witness from falling for that old trick from opposing counsel. A must-read for witness preparation!

The Emotional Components of Moral Outrage and their Effect on Mock Juror Verdicts

Liana Peter-Hagene, Alexander Jay, and Jessica Salerno talk to us about how moral outrage is more likely to make your jurors vote guilty. This is new research from the growing literature on this issue and you’ll see our trial consultant respondents thought this was pretty interesting stuff!

Women as Expert Witnesses

Michelle Jones and Tess Neal take on the task of bringing us up to date on how women expert witnesses stack up relative to male expert witnesses. There is some good news here. There is also some news that irritated a couple of our trial consultant respondents–but, forewarned is forearmed. Read this to see what has been true, what has changed, and how we move forward.

A Polygraph Primer: What Litigators Need to Know

Thanks to four researchers from Harvard (Ekaterina Pivovarova, Judith Edersheim, Justin Baker and Bruce Price) we have a terrific primer on the polygraph–yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Our trial consultant respondents thought this was a very well done piece.

May 2014 Favorite Thing!

Finding it harder and harder to get out of bed when sleep deprived? Here’s an idea that might help maximize the benefit you get from minimal sleep.

PowerPoint in the Courtroom: Powerful Points to Consider

We all know PowerPoint is much-maligned. But there are ways to make it more useful, effective and attractive. In this thought piece from Suann Ingle, musings on how to think about PowerPoint at your next trial might have you rethinking all that.


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