Five Psychological Principles of Jury Persuasion

It is no accident that Thomas Mauet’s Fundamentals of Trial Techniques is the best regarded textbook for trial advocacy, at least among professors and adjunct professors who use a text at all. I kept a fair number of my law school textbooks, but the only one I’ve consulted more than once in 20 years of practice is Mauet’s Fundamentals.

In his chapter on trial strategy, Professor Mauet introduces us to some basic psychological principles which come into play when presenting evidence and argument to jurors. I’ll highlight five good ones here.

1.  Jurors are primarily affective, not cognitive, thinkers. This is probably a huge generalization, but a useful one. Mauet writes: “People have two significantly different decision-making styles. Most people are primarily affective, not cognitive, thinkers. Affective persons are emotional, creative, impulsive, symbol oriented, selective perceivers of information and base decisions largely on previously held attitudes about people and events.” (Id. at 376.)†

2.  Jurors use attitudes to filter information and reach decisions they believe are sensible and fair. We rely on attitudes, values and believes “to filter conflicting information. Our attitudes subconsciously filter information by accepting and remembering consistent information, by ignoring, minimizing, or rejecting inconsistent information, and by distorting inconsistent information to make it consistent with our attitudes.” (Id. at 377.)

3.  Jurors reach decisions quickly, base them on relatively little information, and then resist changing their minds. Just when you thought a jury trial was the perfect forum to resolve a technically complex dispute, such as a patent fight or generally accepted principles of accounting, it turns out that “[j]urors cannot absorb, understand, and retain most of the information they receive during a trial, particularly if most of that information comes through oral testimony. Sensory overload occurs quickly. To relieve the internal stress this problem causes, jurors reach decisions quickly by basing them on relatively little information that their attitudes have subconsciously filtered and received.” (Id. at 377.)

The key for a trial lawyer, then, is to identify the jurors’ “psychological anchors” and “state them in a short, attractive, memorable way that is consistent with jurors’ attitudes and beliefs, and incorporate them into each stage of the trial.” (Id. at 377-78.) For more on this, see my discussions of the Rules of the Road here. This is also consistent with the underpinnings of the Reptile strategy, discussed here.

Why do jurors resist changing their minds? Just as the rush to judgment is fueled by the desire to reduce internal stress caused by sensory overload, the steadfast adherence to their initial decision also helps reduce internal stress. “[I]nconsistent information causes cognitive dissonance–internal conflict and stress. Jurors subconsciously solve this problem by rejecting new information.” (Id. at 378.)

4.  Jury decision-making is influenced by the personality characteristics of individual jurors and how they will interact as a group. Mauet describes three types of jurors: leaders, followers and loners. Recognizing the leaders is key. “Opinion leaders usually have a higher education level and have positions of authority or expertise in their work. Leaders may be authoritarian personalities and often dominate jury discussions; the three most vocal jurors typically control more than 50 percent of the deliberation discussion. Particularly in longer trials, jurors form subgroups around opinion leaders.” (Id.)

Followers  . . . well, they follow the leaders. But loners are worth worrying about. “Loners . . . have no particular interest in either interacting or agreeing with other jurors. Loners who seem withdrawn because of recent traumatic experiences frequently become punitive jurors.” (Id.) Yikes!

5.  Jurors are influenced by medium variables. The message here is that jurors absorb what they see exponentially better than what they simply hear. Mauet writes, “When the medium is oral testimony, clear, simple common English with a smooth, confident delivery and reinforcing kinesic and paralinguistic cues significantly affect how jurors receive, accept, and retain the communication. . . Since communication is approximately 60 percent kinetic (appearance, gestures, body movement), 30 percent paralinguistic (voice inflection), and only 10 percent word content, trial lawyers must learn to read the kinesic and paralinguistic cues that jurors send during voir dire, witnesses send while testifying, and lawyers send throughout a trial.” (Id. at 380.)

Visual exhibits are hugely important. “Visual exhibits also have extraordinary retention properties. People retain about 85 percent of what they learn visually; retention of aural information is only about 10 percent. Hence, exhibits that pass the ‘billboard test’ — clear, immediate, and attractive — have an extraordinary impact on jurors.” (Id.)

With these psychological principles in mind, we can see why voir dire is so important, as is the packaging of messages, particularly anything that is complex or likely to trigger jurors’ long and closely held attitudes and beliefs. Good luck.

†All citations are to the Third Edition.

Learn More

Settlement Negotiations: Anchors Aweigh!

Buyers snatched up a weathered house on my street late last year, and I soon learned they intended to remodel and “flip” it for a profit. A couple of weeks ago, the house, completely remodeled with the addition of a swimming pool, went on the market for a price that frankly stunned many of us in the neighborhood. Naturally, everyone likes to make a profit, particularly if the whole point of buying the house was to fix it up, turn around and sell it. But, these “flippers” had set the asking price at a fantastic 3½ times the home’s original sale price, well outside what any of us thought was reasonable.

This was running through my mind when I came across an article in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal about the wisdom of pricing real estate too high or too low. The article cited a recent study in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization addressing the notion of “anchoring.” Discussing this study, the WSJ article said:

“The research explores a behavioral trait called ‘anchoring.’ That is a common tendency to rely on the first piece of information offered (the ‘anchor’) when making decisions. Once buyers have an anchor, they typically interpret other information involved in the sale around it.”

It struck me that this “anchoring” phenomenon must have some application in other corners of the negotiation world, including what I do, settlement negotiations. We toss around terms like “low ball” and “inflated demand,” but I’ve never given too much thought to the deeper psychological implications of the launching point for negotiations.

I decided to solicit some thoughts on this point from experts, so I asked two prominent Los Angeles neutrals, Mark Loeterman ( and Jeff Kichaven (, for their view on the notion of “anchoring.” First, though, I reflected how I receive an extremely high asking price when shopping to purchase a piece of property or commencing a settlement negotiation. I’ve never had the experience of shopping for real estate without some kind of budget. If a house is priced outside that budget, even factoring in some cushion for negotiations, I won’t even look at it.

In the context of settlement negotiations, a ridiculously high demand can have a similar effect. While I don’t usually have the luxury of passing or ignoring a settlement demand, an outrageously high demand can have the effect of “anchoring” in my mind the notion that the case probably won’t settle, at least until something drastic happens to force my opponent to be reasonable.

Both neutrals I spoke with echoed this as a legitimate concern when dropping anchor. Jeff Kichaven pointed out that, “Sometimes opening numbers are so high, or so low, that they seem untethered to the realities of the negotiation, and are dismissed out of hand.”

What to do? If anchoring works because it sets the stage for all negotiations that follow, but must not be so overreaching that it “alienates” (my term) the parties, then it makes sense to push the envelope, but not too far. As Mark Loeterman remarked, “For anchoring to work, set initial offers and demands at the far edge of the credible zone so they can be rationally defended and invite further bargaining.”

Otherwise, it is not clear whether an overly aggressive opening demand or offer can be forgotten or cloud the entire negotiation. As Jeff Kichaven pointed out, “The interesting question to which I do not know the answer is whether “absurd” numbers also influence the later negotiations, or whether they are truly forgotten, and forgiven, as the negotiation goes on.”

So, when commencing negotiations, drop anchor, but do it with care, lest you do more harm than good.

Learn More

Follow this blog

Get every new post delivered right to your inbox.

Email address