Most people use stereotypes as quick and easy ways of judging other people. Social psychological research on stereotypes has been conducted for almost 80 years and in general, has revealed that stereotypes often lead to bad decisions. Although, by definition, stereotypes contain a “kernel of truth,” they are conducive to producing judgmental errors because of their reliance on generalizations. Many attorneys rely on generalizations about certain types of people based on gender, race, occupation, and other demographic characteristics. These generalizations, in turn, lead to stereotypic decisions about the type of person who would or would not be a good juror for a particular case. Given that decades of social psychological research have revealed little predictability of jury verdicts based on juror demographics, it should come as no surprise that jury selection based on demographics and stereotypes is likely to be inaccurate. The dangers associated with demographically and stereotype based jury selection are due to: (1) reliance on information that has little basis for predicting verdict; (2) likelihood of failing to exercise a peremptory challenge on someone who should be excused because challenges have been used to strike other jurors based on stereotyping; (3) inability to ask probing questions that allow the attorney to get to know the prospective jurors’ personalities, attitudes, values, beliefs, and life experiences, all of which are more related to verdict than generalities based on stereotypes; and (4) a general tendency to prefer jury selection decisions that are “good enough” instead of accurate. Each prospective juror is a unique person who deserves the attorneys’ and court’s time in finding out whether he or she will be well suited for the case at trial. A “good enough” strategy in jury selection is likely to backfire when important voir dire questions, designed to obtain crucial information, are discounted in favor of finishing jury selection as quickly as possible.
Interestingly, there have been research studies that reveal lawyers’ experience in selecting juries does not necessarily lead to accuracy. In fact, lawyers are accurate in predicting which jurors are favorable to their side of the case 50% of the time, meaning they are performing this important task at chance level, much like the accuracy of predicting the outcome of a coin toss. In addition, research has shown lay persons are as accurate as lawyers when it comes to selecting juries. The primary reason lawyers perform poorly on jury selection decisions is their use of demographics and stereotypes. Avoiding stereotypes requires a major shift in thinking on the part of trial counsel. Asking though provoking questions, most important, open ended questions that require the venire members to do most of the talking, is a skill that must be fine tuned in order to lead to accurate decision making. Selecting the people who will decide the case demands accuracy over “good enough,” or “that one will do,” decisions. Overall, there is more to conducting an excellent voir dire than asking simple questions that demand socially desirable answers.
Contact Magnus for instruction in voir dire techniques that will enhance your accuracy in selecting juries.
The latest fad among plaintiffs’ lawyers is viewing the people who decide their case, that is, the jury, as comprised of individuals with brains that function in reptilian ways. This fad would be humorous if it was nothing more than an interesting way of describing a certain type of person, in much the same way as members of certain professions are referred to as “sharks” or “snakes,” however, the reptilian view of jurors goes much deeper than that, leading to an erroneous view of the way in which juries make decisions, not to mention human nature as a whole. Magnus Research Consultants does not endorse any view of jurors that does not hold them in high esteem and we have chosen to write a brief overview of our reasons for opposing the premises behind this latest fad in litigation. First, just as there is no scientific basis for the view, held by many attorneys, that demographics predict verdict, there is no scientific basis that the human brain is similar to the reptilian brain. The reptile enthusiasts are touting the validity of their “theory” on outdated neuroscience research from the 1960s. Those of us who have conducted scientific research on the ways in which people make decisions know we humans are far more complex than reptiles and we are not even closely related on the phylogenetic tree! Second, there is no “one size fits all” approach to jury selection and jury persuasion. Adopting an overly simplistic view of people and the decisions they make is likely to lead to mistakes. The “safety” themes endorsed by reptile fans may appeal to some people, but certainly, they are not for everyone. It seems as if some attorneys have jumped on the latest bandwagon out of a desire to make decisions about jurors that are “good enough,” when their decisions should be based on a desire for accuracy.
Magnus’ Director of Research, Dr. Melissa Pigott, has spent decades in the scientific study of human behavior. As a psychologist who works with attorneys on complex cases throughout the U.S.A., Dr. Pigott guarantees her opinions about jurors are based on actual psychological research, not the latest “pop” psychology fiction that is being sold to attorneys.
Contact Magnus for help in understanding that people are people; people are not reptiles
There are a wide variety of methods that can be utilized to obtain information about potential jurors during jury selection. Gone are the days when the trial attorney merely asked voir dire questions then, based on the potential jurors’ answers to the questions, exercised challenges for cause and peremptory strikes. Oral voir dire questioning is, of course, still used during most jury trials and written questions in the form of supplemental juror questionnaires are also used in an increasing number of cases, however, these methods are rarely used absent other forms of investigations into the jurors’ backgrounds. The services of private investigators and others who perform background checks are a valuable supplement to the information provided in the venire members’ answers to the attorneys’ voir dire questions. It is also relatively easy for someone who works for the trial attorneys to conduct searches of potential jurors’ backgrounds by purchasing information readily available on the Internet. Even simpler are in house searches of potential jurors’ social media accounts and GoogleTM or similar databases of public information. Obtaining information from sources other than the jurors’ answers to voir dire questions is essential. This information may yield one or more of the following results: (1) the attorney may find one or more jurors have omitted important details in their answers to voir dire questions; (2) the attorney may obtain information that, although not case specific in nature, may reveal a source of potential bias on the part of one or more jurors; (3) the attorney may uncover dishonesty on the part of one or more jurors in the answers to voir dire questions; (4) the attorney may obtain useful information that enables him/her to inquire about issues of interest to the potential juror; and (5) the attorney may discover that one or more venire members has been blogging or otherwise engaging in outside communications prohibited by the court. Although background searches should be performed prior to seating the jury, it is also important to monitor the jury’s Internet use once the trial is in progress. Even though the jury will have received the court’s admonishment to refrain from using the Internet during the course of the trial, it is unrealistic to expect all of the jurors to comply with the court’s instruction. Therefore, in an abundance of caution, particularly when the trial involves high profile or controversial issues, the jurors should be monitored daily for the duration of the trial. Today’s jurors are more informed than ever before. It is essential for attorneys to embrace the challenges of trying cases to today’s jurors using every tool available. Traditional means of obtaining information about the venire will stop short of providing the attorney with all of the information needed to decide the suitability of potential jurors.
Contact Magnus for information on how to “really get to know” your jury.
One of the most requested services offered by Magnus Research Consultants is voir dire consultation, including preparation of voir dire questions. Although some attorneys have considerable experience writing voir dire questions, the questions written by Magnus’ consultants are vastly different from those written by attorneys. The first distinction in Magnus’ voir dire questions is that they are customized for the issues specific to the case in trial. We have been contacted on numerous occasions by attorneys who want to purchase voir dire questions for their case, based on the erroneous assumption that we have a database of questions prewritten without regard to the particulars of a case. Magnus has strong beliefs about the need for writing fresh, innovative, customized, voir dire questions, as opposed to merely recycling questions from one trial to the next. Magnus also writes voir dire questions to elicit jurors’ open and honest discussions about the case issues. We are far more interested to know how the jurors feel, what they believe, and their life experiences as they pertain to the case at issue than we are in tabulating how many prospective jurors raised their hands in response to an inquiry. Magnus’ voir dire questions go well beyond simple interpretation of juror demographics – we know demographics are not predictive of verdict.
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The dynamics of jury selection have vastly changed in the decades since Magnus Research Consultants’ Director of Research, Dr. Melissa Pigott, has been selecting juries for attorneys throughout the United States. Years ago, hardship challenges were rarities and were granted by judges only in extreme circumstances, for example, if a prospective juror was self employed, worked solely on commission, or had to care for a young child. Today’s jurors face a plethora of life challenges never before witnessed when selecting a jury. Although federal courts are still less likely to grant hardship challenges than state courts, they, too, are being faced with a different jury pool than in prior years.
In addition to the usual and customary hardship challenges attorneys and their jury consultants expect, there are other hardship challenges that have arisen largely as a result of the economic downturn that began several years ago. Today’s prospective jurors are more likely than ever before to indicate they cannot sit on jury for more than a day, or sometimes two, because they: (1) no longer have a vehicle in which to drive to the courthouse; (2) have been unemployed for an extended period of time and must continue to search for a job on a daily basis; (3) are just beginning a new job after a protracted period of unemployment; (4) are caring for an elderly and/or infirm loved one who lost his/her home and is living with them; or (5) cannot afford to pay for gas, meals, etc. in advance of being paid for their jury service. There are numerous prospective jurors in every venire Magnus has observed lately who are noticeably upset and concerned that their jury service will pose an undue financial hardship on them.
A substantial factor that relates to hardship challenges is the reduced venire size in many states, including Magnus’ home state of Florida. Several years ago, Florida courts reduced the number of venire persons on a “typical” panel as a cost savings measure. In some civil cases on which we have consulted in recent months, the venire size has been as low as 24. The low venire size, when coupled with the higher number of hardship challenges, has made jury selection extremely difficult in some cases. On several occasions, additional jurors have to be obtained from the larger venire (often including jurors who have been de-selected from other cases during the same trial period). When this occurs, lengthy delays often occur, leading to a longer than expected jury selection process which, in turn, frustrates the first venire and in some cases, has led to outbursts that create problems for the litigants and the court. On other occasions when the hardship challenges are more numerous than the judge expected, there have been no additional venire members waiting in the jury assembly room, thereby causing a mistrial.
In general, attorneys who are planning to select a jury should confer with the trial judge well in advance of the first day of jury selection regarding the venire size as well as the judge’s overall philosophy on hardship challenges. If the court will agree to a pre-screening process in advance of bringing in the venire for a specific case, this will often expedite the jury selection process in that the hardship challenges will already have been exercised prior to the attorneys’ questioning. Finally, all of the attorneys who are involved in selecting today’s juries should be cognizant of the fact that there are many more factors that impact the lives of our jurors than ever before.
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There has been recent publicity concerning the issue of “stealth jurors,” that is, jurors who provide socially desirable answers to attorneys’ voir dire questions as a way to be chosen for the jury on a particular case. Stealth jurors are typically people who have a special interest in the outcome of a trial because they have strong political, religious, or moral views about the content of a case, the attorneys who are involved, and/or the litigants; they want to be part of history in a high profile case, including providing information to the media and obtaining a book publishing contract; or they want to right a wrong, even a score, or engage in another form of retribution against the court system. Because stealth jurors have a hidden agenda and are usually adept at keeping their true beliefs a secret, it is usually difficult to identify them, particularly when there are time limits on voir dire imposed by the court. As discussed in Magnus’ February, 2012 postcard, it is imperative for all attorneys to conduct background searches of all potential jurors prior to the jury being sworn. Background searches are the first tool in uncovering information regarding a stealth juror. Often, a relatively simple Internet search can reveal information that reveals a venire person has been less than truthful during oral questioning. Other times, a background search will yield important information about a potential juror related to group affiliations, criminal records, occupational licenses, etc. that, because they are unrelated to the case at issue, will never be inquired about by either the court or the attorneys who are trying the case. Background searches are an absolute requirement in the courtroom of today. The second most valuable tool in uncovering information a stealth juror would prefer to keep to himself/herself is a Supplemental Juror Questionnaire (SJQ). A carefully worded SJQ will ask important background questions in a nonthreatening manner, often imbedded within nonessential questions, that elicits honest answers, as opposed to socially desirable responses.
Another function of an SJQ is in the validation of jurors’ answers to oral questions posed by counsel, in a written format, to determine whether there is consistency across the responses. Considerable social psychological research has revealed a tendency on the part of most people to answer written questions (as long as they are properly constructed), posed on an individual basis, in a more open and honest fashion than oral questions that must be answered in front of other people. The third way to uncover stealth jurors is to retain the services of a professional jury consultant, preferably a consultant with a Ph.D. in psychology, sociology, or communications, and who is an expert in interpreting human behavior. In particular, psychologists are trained listeners who are skilled in interpreting what a person “really means” based on both what is said as well as what is not said. Attorneys have extremely valuable trial skills, but not included among their skill set is knowing the nuances of human behavior. If a professional jury consultant is part of the trial team, it is important for the consultant to be permitted by the attorneys who have retained him/her to express opinions about the prospective jurors without the attorney “leading” the consultant to draw a conclusion the attorney wants to hear. Attorneys’ personalities often over power psychologists, who can be dissuaded from expressing an honest opinion about a stealth juror. In conclusion, there are no simple answers regarding the identification of stealth jurors, who are becoming increasingly common and problematic in both civil and criminal trials. Using a variety of tools is the best way to ferret out a stealth juror before he/she destroys your case.
Contact Magnus for our expertise in the psychology of understanding human behavior.
Numerous scientific studies, including one recently reviewed in the ABA Journal, conclude that juror demographics do not predict verdict. Demographics include easily observable characteristics, such as gender, age, and race, plus factors such as occupation, income, education, and residence. Reliance on demographics in voir dire often leads to utilization of stereotypes in deciding who to strike.
Instead of relying on demographics and, ultimately stereotypes, the attorney should base jury selection strategy on jurors’ case specific attitudes, values, and beliefs and their underlying personality dispositions. Case specific questions are the most reliable predictors of how jurors will decide a case.
Call the experts at Magnus for voir dire questions that reveal jurors’ case specific attitudes.
Substantial debate has persisted for many years between attorneys and psychologists on the issue of juror demographics. For over 100 years, attorneys have received advice from other attorneys suggesting that demographic factors (such as gender, race, age, etc.) are predictive of verdict. This type of jury selection advice, focusing on notions which are often sexist, racist, and ageist, has attained a “folklore” status by virtue of being passed along across generations of attorneys. Psychological research, in contrast, has largely been ignored by teachers of trial advocacy. It is a commonly accepted fact within psychology, and other social sciences, that demographic characteristics are not predictive of verdict. Focusing on demographics produces stereotypical judgments which, in turn, lead to erroneous decision making. Jurors’ case specific attitudes, rather than demographics, ultimately determine how they will decide a case.
Call the experts at Magnus to change your focus from demographics to case specific attitudes.
In general, people like those who are similar to themselves due to perceived familiarity. There is a major exception to this rule, however. A process known by psychologists as defensive attribution recognizes a tendency for people to hold victims of misfortune responsible for their fate; this tendency is pronounced when the victim is similar to the observer and when the consequences are severe. Defensive attribution occurs because, the more one is personally threatened by an injustice, the more one needs to protect oneself from believing one could suffer the same misfortune. Defensive attribution has obvious implications for jury selection strategy: favorable jurors may not be who you think they are!
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Just as there are no perfect people (or attorneys!), rarely does an attorney encounter a “perfect” client. Many clients, in fact, have serious problems that negatively impact the way they are perceived by juries. These problems include psychological disorders (including those related to the stress resulting from the event leading to the lawsuit), to prior criminal convictions, to I.R.S. disputes. Many attorneys attempt to ignore problem issues during voir dire, instead preferring to educate the jury in later parts of the trial. This strategy can backfire because jurors have not been questioned on their attitudes about the problem area(s). Asking potential jurors about their attitudes toward a client’s problems not only allows the attorney to de-select jurors with negative attitudes; it can help desensitize jurors to repeated mentions of the problem after voir dire.
Ask the experts at Magnus for more information on voir dire and the “problem” client.