February 21, 2011

Pay Close Attention to the Big Mouths in Voir Dire

By: Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm –

Big mouth


So your case is in, your jury is ready to start deliberating, and you feel pretty confident that at least the majority of your jurors favor your side of the case.  Should you feel safe?  Of course not, because the verdict isn't in the hands of the majority as much as it is in the mouths of those with the loudest and most persistent voices.  When conducting mock trials, we see it over and over again: The individual verdict preferences we measured before the start of deliberations don't reflect the apparent consensus that can emerge in even the earliest moments of deliberations.  Jurors will try to get a read on what the majority thinks and many but not all will shift their views to align with that majority.  But according to some new research, a repeated viewpoint – even if held by only one person – can have nearly as much influence on the group consensus as a commonly held viewpoint.  In other words, the big mouth on your jury can start to seem like a majority to the rest of the jurors. 

In a study that could have been motivated by one too many rancorous faculty meetings, the researchers (Weaver et al., 2007), looked at how discussion participants estimate the distribution of opinions within a group, and found there was a tendency to equate the frequent expression of an opinion with the prevalence of that opinion.  As reported in a Psyblog post on the study, one person in a group repeating an opinion three times has 90% of the persuasive effectiveness of three different people expressing that opinion.  So an actual majority viewpoint is likely to be better at shaping the views of the group than an oft-repeated minority viewpoint…but not by much.  Those who are able to dominate the discussion by simply holding the floor have an influenced that is disproportionate to either the strength or the representativeness of their opinions.

So why would it be the case that a repeated individual opinion could become confused with a group opinion?  One reason noted by the study authors relates to memory.  The repeated reason (whether from one or many) is simply more accessible to you when you are recalling the discussion, and as a result it feels more representative. 

A larger question is what determines the group's tendency, a jury in this case, to provide that greater influence to one or a couple individuals?  Why do they give the floor to the louder and potentially more repetitive individuals?  A recent review (King, 2009) of the emergence of leadership points to some basic human habits in forming and maintaining groups.  Not only are more extroverted and assertive individuals more likely to become leaders, but experiments also show that the more talkative individuals are more likely to become a group leader regardless of the quality or the representativeness of their input.  Simply put, talkers tend to dominate.

Without a crystal ball to see which of your potential jurors might emerge to take control of your jury, how can you look for likely leadership traits within the panel?  Let me suggest a few ways.

1.) Observe who chats with their neighbors during breaks.  This is a suggestive but not a definitive indication, since the social butterfly in conversational settings may turn into the wallflower when the tone gets more argumentative.  Still, all things considered, leaders are likely to be talkers.

2.) Look for longer voir dire answers.  Reticent individuals will answer in a word or a phrase, while those who are more prone for leadership will answer in a full sentence, or two or three.  If the panelist is also adding details that are relevant, but not specifically asked-for in the question, that may also be a sign of a more assertive respondent.

3.) Watch for eye contact.  According to some studies, those who are selected as leaders in group tasks (like jury deliberations) are more likely to maintain sustained eye contact, particularly at the end of a statement. 

In and of itself, leadership is neither automatically good nor bad for your case.  But it is especially important to assess because, depending on what they think about your case, a leader will be either very good or very bad for your case.  So if you do spot a big mouth during voir dire, make sure you're comfortable that they are more likely to use that big mouth to talk you up rather than down.


ResearchBlogging.org King, A., Johnson, D., & Van Vugt, M. (2009). The Origins and Evolution of Leadership Current Biology, 19(19) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.07.027

Weaver, K., Garcia, S., Schwarz, N., & Miller, D. (2007). Inferring the popularity of an opinion from its familiarity: A repetitive voice can sound like a chorus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(5), 821-833 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.5.821

Photo Credit:  House of Sims (Brandi Sims), Flickr Creative Commons

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