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Archive for the ‘Witness Preparation’ Category

narcissist 2015We’ve written about narcissists a fair amount here and today’s post shows us that the brains of narcissists are indeed very special—but not in a good way since they have “weakened frontostriatal connectivity”.  But you probably knew that already. It’s a sort of neural disconnect, say the authors, between the self and reward. That disconnect may lead the narcissist to seek excessive reassurance from others.

Researchers from the University of Kentucky at Lexington recruited 50 undergraduate students and asked them to complete the Narcissistic Personality Index. Then they completed a specialized form of MRI with the participants: diffusion tensor imaging (a tool to measure the amount of connectivity between different brain areas). A very simplistic explanation of the technology is that it produces a spiderweb-like visualization of connections between different areas of the brain—you can literally see how much various parts of the brain are communicating.

The researchers were especially interested in an area known as the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) which is associated with thinking about ourselves, and a second and deeper region of the brain that is associated with reward and feeling good (the ventral striatum).

Even more specifically, they were interested in what they call “the density of the white matter tracts” between the two areas. The “white matter density” would highlight the level of connectivity between these areas of the brain—or, in other words, it would tell us how much these two areas of the brain are talking to each other. How often is the individual experiencing reward and feeling good about themselves?

So, the participants who have completed a measure of narcissism are lying in the MRI machine and having the number of connections between these two areas of the brain measured. Narcissists would say they have very high self-esteem and if that were true, they would have a high number of connections between these two parts of the brain since someone with high self-esteem would internally say nice things about themselves often.

Alas for the narcissists, the specialized brain scan did not show they had strong self-esteem. Instead, the higher the participants scored on the narcissism measure, the fewer connections they had between these two areas of the brain.

The researchers considered the finding and concluded that they see this as indicative of an “internal deficit in self-reward connectivity” in narcissists. In other words, if the narcissist is not having many rewarding thoughts or feelings about the self, they may seek out praise and admiration from others. Finally, the researchers suggest that the brain’s white matter can be modified: “clinical interventions can readily alter white matter integrity”. This fact, they say, suggests another way for narcissists to feel better on their own: repeated self-affirmations. This could help the narcissist refrain from what the researchers describe as characteristic “exhibitionism and immodesty”.

While intellectually interesting, from a litigation advocacy standpoint, we don’t think anyone will be putting neural evidence of neediness on the witness stand soon. But this study still points out an important reality: narcissism may indicate neediness.

Understand what to do when faced with a narcissist (in this case, the narcissistic witness).

Draw out the narcissist in cross-examination by asking for a sharing of expertise. Let jurors see how self-involved and arrogant the narcissist is when unscripted.

Use this understanding (of narcissistic neediness) to help you interact without rancor with a narcissistic colleague, client, or supervisor.

Chester, DS Lynam, DR Powell, DK DeWall, CN 2015 Narcissism is associated with weakened frontostriatal connectivity: a DTI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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humble-bragOh the “humblebrag”. It’s really not that long since career counselors were suggesting interview questions asking about weaknesses could be turned to the candidate’s advantage by responding about an alleged weakness that was really a strength. (“Weakness? I think I tend to be perfectionistic. I just can’t send in a report without double-checking it for spelling, grammar, and content errors.”) Alas, times change and now the humble brag is looked at with disdain.

We were pleased to see one of our favorite research groups publish a working paper on the art of humble bragging. And even more pleased to see the results of their work mirror the work on humble bragging we published in May of this year: it doesn’t work so just stop it. It is obnoxious. Ultimately, they say that if you want a self-promotion strategy, outright bragging is more effective than the deceptive humble bragging. Why? Because you are [oddly] seen as sincere when you brag.

They did five experiments in total:

First, they collected humblebrags from a Twitter account publishing them and asked a couple of (yes, that would be two) raters to indicate how likable, competent and sincere they thought the person who’d tweeted the humble brag was in real life. Then they were asked if they thought the person was complaining and if they thought the person might be humble bragging (showing off in the guise of a complaint).

The [two] raters didn’t like humble braggers  and did not see them as either sincere or competent. The researchers concluded that those who humble brag are seen as less likable, less sincere and less competent. [While this makes intuitive sense, we wish they had used more than two raters. In essence, we consider the character assessment aspect of this study to be without value.]

Second, the researchers examined humble bragging in job interviews. They gave 122 undergraduate students (67% female and average age 21.34 years) instructions to write detailed responses to the question “What is your weakness?” as though they were in a job interview. Then they asked the participants to explain the reason for their response (“Why would you answer the question, ‘What is your weakness?’ in this manner?”). Again, they had two raters analyze the resulting open-ended responses for humble bragging and whether the participant answered the second question that they were being honest (“This really is my weakness”) or strategic (“I want to get hired”) in their response.

77% of the participants chose to humble brag and just 23% gave a real weakness. (Just for your edification, the most common humble brag ‘weaknesses’ were identified as perfectionism, working too hard, being too nice and helpful, and being too fair and honest.) The [two] raters preferred the honest candidates who gave a real weakness.

Third, the researchers examined the effectiveness of humble bragging in comparison with both complaining and bragging when it comes to how much others like the person either bragging, complaining or humble bragging. For this experiment, 302 online research participants (average age 36.97 and 41.5% female) were told they would be evaluating another person. Each participant was randomly assigned to one of three conditions: complain (“I am so bored”), brag (“People mistake me for a model”), or humble brag (“I am so bored of people mistaking me for a model”). The participants viewed the statements (based on the condition they’d been assigned to) and then rated how likable, sincere, and credible they thought the person saying this was.

As before, humble braggers were viewed more negatively than those who just brag outright and those who complained. Also again, humble braggers were seen as being insincere compared to the braggarts and complainers.

Fourth, the researchers examined whether humble bragging would affect how others perceive you. For example, someone who humble brags about “the problem with having graduated from two universities is that you get double the calls looking for donations” — may be seen as not very likable (due to the humble brag) but simultaneously as intelligent (despite the humble brag since she did graduate from two different universities). So the researchers wanted to see if the cost (being disliked) outweighed the benefit (an increase in perceived intelligence) when you humble brag. Again, they used an online sample of 201 (average age 35 years, 34.3% female) and assigned half to a brag condition (“I get hit on all the time”) and half to a humble brag condition (“Just rolled out of bed and still get hit on all the time, so annoying”). Noteworthy in this experiment is that the average age of the test subjects was 35, and the dilemma faced by the bragging conditions is the nuisance of being viewed as sexually attractive. Between the use of two raters for critical judgments and now this gaffe, we are tempted to wonder about the judgment of the researchers. But still, it is interesting. As before, the participants were asked how much they liked the person saying these things, how sincere they thought s/he was and finally, how attractive.

As before, humble braggers were seen as less likable, less sincere, and even less attractive than the braggers. The researchers concluded that humble bragging just has no real benefits. You really are better off bragging.

Finally, the (likely tired by now) researchers wanted to find out if people not only disliked the humble bragger but also treated them “less positively”. And this time, the researchers used actual cold, hard cash. Well, actually it was “virtual cash” but the idea is the same. We think. Anyway, the researchers used 154 online participants (average age 33.26 years and 35.1% female) and another 154 undergraduate students (average age 21.38 years and 70.5% female) The participants in each group were given pairs of statements (either humblebrags or outright brags) they were told came from their experimental partner and asked to rate likability, and sincerity and then to determine how they would split $5 between themselves and the (non-existent) person who’d allegedly written the comments.

Those research participants paired with humble braggers kept more of the $5 for themselves while this did not happen with the braggarts. As you have guessed by now, humble braggers are seen as insincere and that results in less likability and that results in (in this case) stingier (and meaner) treatment.

The researchers seem to think they’ve done enough work to show you that humble bragging just doesn’t work and is not useful (they go so far as to say it is “uniquely ineffective”) for impression management. We can’t speak to this being a “uniquely ineffective” strategy, but the lack of sincerity shown by the humble bragger results in quick dislike.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this has definite implications for both self-presentation and witness preparation.

Avoid humble bragging in your casual asides while in the courtroom and closely listen for humble bragging in witnesses. Sure, be proud of yourself, your company, what you have accomplished, but in a subdued way. The goal for both witnesses and attorneys is to be a likable source of useful information and to avoid aggravating your audience.  The instant dislike these researchers find for humble braggers is enough for us to recommend you watch for this increasingly ubiquitous self-promotion (in both yourself and while preparing witnesses) and avoid the negative costs in the courtroom.

Sezer, O., Gino, F., & Norton, M. (2015). Humblebragging: A Distinct And Ineffective Self-Presentation Strategy SSRN Electronic Journal DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2597626

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sc-police-shoots-unarmed-man-800Police and firefighters earned a major boost in respect and credibility after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. We routinely saw mock jurors expressing admiration and a belief that the police or firefighter client, witness or party was telling the truth. More recent news, however, has left many more suspicious of police officers’ testimony and sparked a movement: #BlackLivesMatter.

The Washington Post recently published an analysis of fatal police shootings from 2015 (almost 400 nationwide so far this year) and reported some disturbing facts:

About half those shot by police were white, half minority. But the demographics shifted sharply among those who were unarmed when shot, two-thirds of whom were black or Hispanic. Overall, blacks were killed at three times the rate of whites or other minorities when adjusting for the demographics of the census where the shootings occurred.

Ninety-two victims — nearly a quarter of those killed — were identified by police or family members as mentally ill.

Thus far, just three of the 485 fatal shootings have resulted in police officers being charged with a crime (less than 1%). This low rate of criminal charges against the police involved in fatal shootings mirrors the findings of a Post investigation in April that found that of thousands of fatal police shootings over the past decade, only 54 had produced criminal ­charges. Typically, those cases involved layers of damning evidence challenging the officer’s account. Of the cases resolved, most officers were cleared or acquitted.

NPR also recently wrote about the issues surrounding death while in police custody—including Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, and Walter Scott among others. Even CNN reviewed the deaths, highlighting a number of additional men who died in police custody. Many of us [particularly those who are not African-American] have watched the news reports and videos of police officers shooting or otherwise harming/killing unarmed African-American men and wondered whether this has been happening all along and is just now coming to public awareness. Those in the African-American community likely wonder how we could not know, but also likely appreciate the growing awareness and concern across the country.

So it wasn’t really a surprise to see an article from the Detroit Free Press questioning whether police officers on the witness stand are facing more skeptical juries. This article focuses on how the recent plethora of news stories on deaths (especially of African-American men) in police custody has affected perception of police testimony. Just as police officers were imbued with a sort of ‘halo effect’ after 9/11/2001, perhaps they now have the opposite of that—regardless of how unfair that may be to the individual officer.

The Free Press article is useful for identifying questions you will want to cover in planning witness preparation or cross-examination. As one defense attorney quoted in the Free Press article says, “Maybe the scales are just being tipped back to where they’ve always belonged”.

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good people bad thingsHere’s a really easy solution to our tendency to sometimes do bad things: be aware of the temptation and think of the longterm consequences of the behavior. It’s a simple answer to a vexing problem that has been with us for millennia.

Researchers wanted to see how identifying an ethical conflict and considering the long-term consequences might shape behavior and so designed a series of studies to test the question. The result is a straight-forward recommendation to do what Mom would have told you to do (if only you would have listened!).

In the first experiment, students in a master’s level business program were split into pairs and then asked to either be a broker for the buyer or a broker for a seller in a real estate transaction. There was a built-in conflict between the two since the seller wanted to preserve the property and the buyer wanted to tear it down and build a hotel. Those who were brokers for the seller were told to only sell to someone who would save the brownstone and brokers for the purchaser were told to conceal the buyer’s plan to build a hotel and tear down the existing brownstone. Before the negotiations began though, half the participants were asked to remember a time they’d cheated or bent the rules to get ahead.

Sure enough, only 45% of those who thought about past bad behavior behaved unethically in negotiations while 67% of those who were not reminded of past transgressions lied in order to close the deal.

In another set of experiments, participants were asked about whether it was okay to steal office supplies, call in sick when they were not really sick, or intentionally slow down work progress to avoid additional tasks. Again, half of the participants were asked to do a pre-task writing exercise where they considered an ethical dilemma.

You guessed it. Those who thought ahead of time about an ethical dilemma were less likely to think these common occurrences were acceptable.

The researchers summarize their results by saying that those who wish to promote more ethical behavior may want to help others become aware of the accumulated impact of unethical acts (for the individual and society) and offer warning cues for upcoming temptation.

We tend to see this work as related to all the work done on how we behave better when we think we are being watched or monitored, and one of our very favorite courtroom strategies. Most of us want to behave in ways that show our best selves. This research points both to a simple way to increase the likelihood of that happening and a way to consider questioning the witness who behaved unethically.

As a trial strategy, you hope jurors associate your trial story and your client with that “high road”. But what this research makes clear is that you increase the likelihood of them making that connection when witnesses speak about their awareness of ethics, of right and wrong. A wise guy once said, “Always take the high road–it’s never crowded.” There are ways to connect your case align with those higher values.

Sheldon OJ, & Fishbach A (2015). Anticipating and Resisting the Temptation to Behave Unethically. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 41 (7), 962-75 PMID: 26001580

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cat-glasses-tieHere’s another installment of things we think you might want to know but to which we don’t wish to devote an entire blog post. Keep reading to have tidbits worthy of sound bytes over drinks.

The onset of ‘real’ adulthood

Five years ago we were distressed to discover that middle age begins at 35 and now we have the definitive word on when “real adulthood” begins. It isn’t upon graduation from college, hitting age 25, or even having children. As with many things, it appears to be about money. When we hit economic milestones, we are truly considered “adult”.

“The latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll asked Americans to define what it means to be starting out in life—and what milestones mark the end of that early stage of experience. Consistently, both younger and older respondents said that adults could put the “starting out” stage of life behind them only after they had crossed major thresholds, not just taken the first steps toward independence.”

For some that means paying off student loans, for others it is having a job that is the beginning of a career, and for others it means having disposable income or a savings plan. These are not measures easily definable with a numeric age.

Watching cat videos could be a good thing!

More Americans than you can possibly imagine enjoy watching cat videos on the internet. A recent publication surveyed “almost 7,000 people” about their cat video watching behavior and found that far from this being a waste of their time, cat video viewers reported they were more energetic, positive, less anxious and less sad after watching cat videos. Future work, says the author, could explore how cat videos might serve as a low-cost form of pet therapy. It’s a good thing, says the author, who, as an assistant professor, will also move closer to tenure with an article on the impact of watching cat videos. That could be yet another positive benefit…at least for the author.

And you think frivolous lawsuits are bad in the United States!

While it is not news that mock jurors routinely bring up the “hot coffee” lawsuit as an example of frivolous lawsuits (a discussion we do not wish to reopen here), they refer far less often to the suit over the hot glue left on toilet seats in big box stores, but of course that has happened, too. Our jurors were too smart for that trick though, so when it came up they thought it was likely your own fault if you did not look before sitting. This conclusion was heightened the more they reflected on the general condition of toilets in big box stores… Mock jurors can be very cold and judgmental. But here’s a lawsuit from China about a TV watcher suing a television actor for “staring at him too intensely” through the TV set and causing “spiritual damage”. Wow. We think someone needs a cup of hot coffee.

News for witness preparation

You can appear more trustworthy, according to new research, but there are limits. You can’t fake looking competent so easily, as some researchers have determined that this is simply not alterable. All it takes, apparently, to look more trustworthy is to look happier rather than angrier. On the other hand, it matters not if your face is happy or angry when it comes to assessments of competence. Observer ratings of your competence are “immutable” say the researchers. We don’t believe this, having prepared lots of witnesses to help them demonstrate their competence and trustworthiness. That is why this one is in a post like this rather than one of its own! We share this with you in case the research achieves viral fame and you are left wondering whether to believe it. Don’t.

How open to experience are you?

We tend to believe the curiosity of an individual is an important factor in considering potential jurors during voir dire. PsyBlog has been doing a series on quick personality tests and here is one to consider: a one-minute measure of openness to experience. While the scoring is a little ambiguous (at least in this presentation) and the interpretation seems a little like a series of Barnum statements, it’s an interesting factor to consider while pondering who would be most likely to listen to your evidence rather than closing off their mind to things they do not yet understand.

Hehman E, Flake JK, & Freeman JB (2015). Static and Dynamic Facial Cues Differentially Affect the Consistency of Social Evaluations. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin PMID: 26089347

Myrick, J. (2015). Emotion regulation, procrastination, and watching cat videos online: Who watches Internet cats, why, and to what effect? Computers in Human Behavior, 52, 168-176 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.06.001

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