ALL THINGS JURY: Understanding jury deliberations ... from psychology to sociology

By R. Robert Samples | Mar 20, 2009

CHARLESTON -- The primary task for jury consultants analyzing the jury deliberation process is to move from a psychological to a sociological focus. This is accomplished in several ways.

First, any analysis of individual juror tendencies must be completed prior to mock deliberations. Questionnaires are utilized to assess key elements of individual mock juror attitudes, reactions and judgments before they are exposed to the potential bias introduced by group discussions. The researcher is thus able to "look back" at these individual measurements to assist in evaluating the impact of sociological variables.

So, what are these sociological variables? The most powerful, by far, is what we commonly call peer pressure. This issue has been much-studied by sociologists for many years. It is the emotive basis for much of our behavior. It is the most influential factor that must be considered in analyzing the group dynamics of mock jury deliberations.

"Peer pressure" leads to a sociological concept called group polarization. During group discussions, the opinions of individuals generally move more strongly to agreement or disagreement on a particular subject. If a person is negatively inclined towards an individual or subject, this often leads to an even stronger negative opinion. Similarly, if a person is already positively inclined towards an individual or position, then these opinions are often reinforced. The question then becomes focused on the individuals who have weak, or a lack of, opinions on issues and individuals. How do group dynamics influence their thinking?

One of the more important dynamics that takes place during group discussions is the role of "perceived experts." All of us have had the experience of an individual who provides us with insight about a subject that he, or she, has more knowledge of than we do. Much of the time, this knowledge is accepted by us as accurate even though we may not have any method or background to evaluate the validity of the information. This is a very common occurrence during jury deliberations and informal discussions during our everyday lives.

In addition to the ways that individuals influence others during group discussions on a cognitive basis, the role of emotional reactions to subjects and individuals are also very important. Again, all of us have had the experience of reacting positively or negatively to an individual speaking in the context of a group discussion. For whatever reasons, we sometimes react emotionally to that individual and place more or less credibility on acceptance of their viewpoints.

While most of us prefer to think of ourselves as independent and unbiased, the fact is we are heavily influenced by others. This behavior manifests itself during life experiences and jury deliberations in several ways and for many different reasons. The task for researchers is to obtain a working understanding of the type of individuals who may be more likely to be influenced by group dynamics and the ways in which they may be influenced.

Samples is president of RRS Research, a communications and opinion research agency headquartered in Charleston. He has extensive crises communications, counseling and litigation research experience and has worked for clients throughout the nation during the last 25 years. He can be contacted at 304.343.7655.

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