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.

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Beware The “Reptile” Lawyer

For many, the words “lawyer” and “reptile” are probably synonymous. Since 2009, however, some lawyers have sought to transform the courtroom into a reptilian battleground.

That year, attorney Don Keenan and jury consultant David Ball published a book on trial strategy called Reptile: The 2009 Manual of the Plaintiff’s Revolution. I’m not sure how “revolutionary” it has really been, but the theory and the book have indeed received some attention, if only because the practice clarifies something clever (and successful) plaintiff lawyers have implicitly understood for decades.

What is the “reptile” theory? It is built upon research performed in the 1960s by neurologist Paul MacLean, who posited a theory that the brain is comprised of three parts: the reptilian complex, the paleomammalian complex and the neomammalian complex. The reptilian complex includes the brain stem and the cerebellum, the oldest part of the brain, which thrives on survival. The reptilian brain maximizes “survival advantages” and attempts to minimize “survival danger.” Id. at 17.

As applied to trial strategy, the theory attempts to capitalize on the need of the reptilian brain to avoid “survival dangers.” As Keenan and Ball write, “When the Reptile sees a survival danger, even a small one, she protects her genes by impelling the juror to protect himself and the community.” Id. 

How does the theory work? The goal, through witness examination and closing argument, is to capitalize on jurors’ innate need to minimize survival dangers. In other words, the evidence and argument must convince a juror, not only that the defendant acted negligently, but also that, such conduct threatens the juror’s community (beyond the single plaintiff), which could include the juror and his/her family. Further, jurors must be made to feel empowered, by virtue of their verdict, to prevent this conduct, thereby protecting the community.

The goal in getting jurors to think with the reptilian part of their brains appears to be (1) to obtain a winning verdict even when logic or emotion might cause jurors to find against the plaintiff’; and (2) to maximize the size of the verdict, by encouraging jurors to think beyond the risk or the harm suffered by the individual plaintiff, to the safety of the broader community.

Coupled with the principles from the book Rules of the Road (about which I previously wrote here and here), lawyers can go reptile by invoking or establishing broad “safety rules” which the defendant violated, but which would have avoided the harm if they had been followed. Keenan and Ball offer six characteristics that each safety rule must possess in order to trigger jurors’ reptilian brains:

  • The rule must prevent danger;
  • The rule must protect people in a wide variety of situations, not just the plaintiff;
  • The rule must be in clear English;
  • The rule must explicitly state what a person must or must not do;
  • The rule must be practical and easy for someone in the defendant’s position to have followed; and
  • The rule must be one that the defendant will either agree with or seem stupid, careless or dishonest. Id. at 52-53.

Some examples? Keenan and Ball begin with the broadest possible “umbrella rule.” Id. at 55. Think: “A [_____________] is not allowed to needlessly endanger the public.” Fill in the blank: doctor, car maker, construction scaffolding supplier, etc. You get the idea.

Next, the authors advocate eliciting admissions, from the defendant and/or its experts, to gradually narrower, more case-specific, safety rules. From the undeniable umbrella rule that “A doctor is not allowed to needlessly endanger the public,” for example, the case-specific rule is “If a cardiologist has a choice between two treatment alternatives, he/she is negligent unless he/she elects the absolute safest choice.” After all, if a doctor picks any alternative that is not the absolute safest, he/she is needlessly endangering the public, right?

As I say, I don’t think the Reptile approach is all that revolutionary. I remember encountering lawyers long before 2009 using a very similar approach and it made a lot of sense to me, even without any tie to neuroscience. In my next post, I will discuss how to prepare a witness for a reptile deposition.

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Five Rules of the Rules of the Road

A couple of posts back, I tried to address the difficulty of getting jurors to apply commonly used, but inherently ambiguous, legal terms and principles, such as “reasonable” to the facts of a particular case. For example, when the jury is instructed that a defendant is liable if he/she/it acted “unreasonably” under a set of circumstances, what are jurors supposed to do with that term?

A solution proposed by Rick Friedman and Patrick Malone, in their popular book, Rules of the Road: A Plaintiff Lawyer’s Guide to Proving Liability,† involved developing a set of rules or principles or standards which, when applied to the evidence of what occurred in the case, yield the conclusion that the defendant did not act reasonably (or indeed acted reasonably, depending on whether you represent the plaintiff or the defendant). In that post, I promised to follow up with some guidelines, or rules of the rules of the road. Here we go.

Rule No. 1: A rule of the road should be a requirement that the defendant do, or not do something. (22) The authors describe the basic structure as follows:

“A [type of defendant] should (or should not . . .) do [fill in relevant conduct sought to be enforced by plaintiff].” (23)

Here’s an example: “A surgeon should carefully identify what it is he/she is supposed to be cutting before commencing surgery.” Or, “An insurance claims examiner should fully, fairly and promptly evaluate and adjust a claim for coverage.”

Rule No. 2: A rule of the road should be easy for the jury to understand. (22) After all, the whole point of having rules of the road is to aid the jury in understanding an already ambiguous word or concept in a way that is favorable to your client. To illustrate this point, the authors suggest that, in the context of a physician’s alleged failure to diagnose a disease, a rule of the road can be gleaned from an internal-medicine textbook. However, the language from the textbook may be unnecessarily arcane, and a principle that jurors can easily understand may need to be refined into more accessible wording. (I realize my own wording is often inaccessible and arcane and my blog posts should probably be re-written to be easier for readers to understand. Blame all those philosophy books I read in college.)

Rule No. 3: A rule of the road should be a requirement that the defendant (or, if your client is the defendant, then the plaintiff) cannot credibly dispute. (22) Your opponent may not easily buy into the rule but, as the authors point out, “[d]isagreeing with the Rule should hurt the defense as much as or more than agreeing with it. If a doctor endorses a text as authoritative . . . he is going to look bad disagreeing with a simple, straightforward principle stated in that text.” (25-26)

Rule No. 4: A rule of the road should be a requirement the defendant has violated (or, if you represent the defendant, one he has not violated). (22) Otherwise, why would that principle or standard matter?

Rule No. 5: A rule of the road should be important enough in the context of the case that proof of its violation will significantly increase the chance of a favorable verdict. (22) “This is not like issue-spotting in law school. Your case does not get better in proportion to the number of Rules you add to your list.” (30)

The Rules of the Road approach offers a strategy to bridge the chasm that inevitably exists between broad, ambiguous legal terms and principles and the concrete evidence received by the jury during trial. As the authors note, “[w]e cannot let jurors make up their own definitions.” (15) And you certainly shouldn’t let your opponent do the defining. Developing a set of rules that adheres to the requirements above should help you avoid getting broadsided at trial.

†Citations are to the second edition.

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Defining Unreasonably Indefinite Words, Like “Reasonable”

One of my great pleasures in raising my daughter is watching her encounter and struggle to make sense of the inherent ambiguities of our language. Puns are a particular favorite. She first learns to draw a picture. Then her mother suggests she’s going to draw her a bath. She gets into bed and draws up the covers. We have yet to draw a conclusion, but that’s coming. Whenever we encounter a word with multiple meanings, it is a simple matter to draw her attention back (pun intended) to the d-word.

I am not a poet, but I do delight in the elusive, liquid ambiguity inherent in language. Except, that is, when drafting (and hoping a jury will understand and follow) jury instructions. Then the indeterminate nature of our language can become an obstacle. An obstacle to understanding. An obstacle to winning.

A great example occurs when we ask jurors to apply a “reasonableness” standard. Was a driver’s operation of his vehicle reasonable? Did the doctor act reasonably when he did not order a particular diagnostic procedure? Was it reasonable for the insurance carrier to deny coverage based on the information available to it?

Whatever issues scholars raise about the “reasonableness” standard, I’m speaking now only about the difficulty in getting jurors to understand and apply such a term in deciding the outcome of my client’s case. And, because I am, yes, a lawyer, by “understand” I mean to know and use the term in a way that guarantees a verdict in my client’s favor.†

Rick Friedman and Patrick Malone, have dealt with precisely this challenge in their popular book, Rules of the Road. Of course they describe the problem far better than I do:

“For the jury, we need to define ‘reasonably prudent doctor’ and ‘reasonable basis’  . . . and all other ‘reasonables’ . . . too. We cannot let jurors make up their own definitions.” (p.15)*

But, without guidance, we know jurors will absolutely make up their own definitions. And, as Messrs. Friedman and Malone point out, they’re not likely to get this guidance from the judge or other jury instructions. It’s up to the trial lawyers to teach the jury about the meaning of reasonableness, so they’re prepared to apply the otherwise nebulous standard to the evidence of the case.

How to do this? As you can imagine from a book subtitled, “A Plaintiff Lawyer’s Guide to Proving Liability,” their methodology is presented 100% from the plaintiff’s perspective. But that doesn’t dilute the quality of their solution to the problem for a lawyer representing either a plaintiff or a defendant. Essentially, the lawyer formulates a set of “rules of the road” which are guiding principles for the conduct of a reasonable actor (i.e., doctor, insurance company, driver). By developing these “rules,” and then establishing that the defendant did not do some or all of them, it becomes possible to educate and persuade the jury to find in the plaintiff’s favor on the ultimate question whether the defendant was unreasonable and, thus, liable.

As the authors point out, the “rules of the road” for a particular case can derive from several sources, including statutes, case-law, textbooks, industry standards, articles, expert opinion and contract provisions. The most comprehensive example given in the book of a set of “rules of the road” involves the standards and principles an insurance company should adhere to when handling a claim. Here are some they list:

“4. Company must conduct a full, fair, and prompt investigation of the claim at its own expense.

5. Company must fully, fairly, and promptly evaluate and adjust the claim.

* * *

7. Company may not deny a claim or any part of a claim based upon insufficient information, speculation or biased information.

* * *

11. Company must give claimant written update on status of claim every thirty days, including a description of what is needed to finalize the claim.” (pp.16-17)

During opening statement and expert testimony, the jury learns that these principles are valid and accepted standards for an insurance company to follow when handling a claim presented by an insured. The evidence is then framed so that it is easy for jurors to see how the standards were not met. (Conversely, for the defendant, that the standard was met.) If, for example, a claims adjuster is not prompt in evaluating a claim, and does not provide regularly written updates on the status of the claim, he has violated two of the “rules of the road” for insurance claims handling. If the evidence establishes the insurer did not have sufficient information on which to base its denial of coverage, there’s another rule broken.

In closing argument, in discussing the ultimate question, i.e., whether the insurance carrier was reasonable in its handling of the plaintiff’s claim, it becomes much easier to educate the jury how, given the accepted claims handling standards they’ve heard so much about, the carrier was most certainly not reasonable and a verdict in plaintiff’s favor against the company is appropriate.

I recognize this is unfairly reductive. It is not reasonable or even possible in a 900 word blog post to do justice to a 300+ page book. But this is the goal of the book, providing a framework for trial lawyers to break down complex or undefined terms, like “reasonable” into concepts that readily guide a trier of fact into returning a favorable verdict. I plan to do a follow-up post in the future which discusses the authors’ criteria for developing “rules of the road” which apply to a particular defendant or case. Until then, stay in your lane!

†Yes, I do know there are no guarantees.

*All citations are to the second edition.

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