November 14, 2011

Don’t Mistake Sociability for Empathy

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

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I've sometimes noticed during jury selection, that attorneys are prone to like the likable.  They want to believe that the panelist who appears to be well-connected, sociable, and friendly is more likely to be kind and empathetic toward their case and their client.  This preference might be understandable, though it overlooks the possibility that the sociable juror might be more kind to the other side, or that their apparent sociability might have nothing to do with their view of the particular case.  New research (Waytz & Epley, 2011 in press), however, suggests that sociability doesn't translate into greater empathy, but instead comes closer to its opposite:  being socially connected makes it easier to dehumanize others.  Yes, you read that correctly.  According to this research, the juror who feels socially connected and well supported is likely to feel less empathy for perceived outsider groups, especially those who are already stigmatized. 

Why would that be the case?  Just as you suspected in high school, those who are "in" in the social sense, can also be the hardest on those who are "out."  This intriguing relationship between greater social connection and diminished empathy has some important implications for litigation, including how you frame your story, characterize your clients, and pick your jury.

The Research

The study (Waytz & Epley, 2011) was conducted by two researchers from Northwestern and the University of Chicago.  Simply titled, "Social Connection Enables Dehumanization," it reports on four studies looking at the connection between a sense of social support (which is usually good) and a reduction of human feelings toward various groups that could be seen as outside one's circle (e.g., the disabled, drug addicts, or accused criminals).  Many studies have shown that being socially connected is good in a variety of ways, but this study's finding is that what benefits intragroup relations can actually impair intergroup relations.  

The first study asked participants to write an essay about a time they felt supported (while asking controls to write about someone they didn't know).  Those who had been cued up to feel social support were more likely to dehumanize addicts or disabled, specifically seeing them as less capable of "engaging in a great deal of thought," or "doing things on purpose," or a number of other traits associated with mind, individuality, and free will.  In another study, participants looked through photos of described terrorism suspects, either with a friend or a stranger, and those with a friend were more likely to approve of torture or harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding or electric shock.

One of the authors, Adam Waytz, explained in an article in Time Magazine that rather than making the participants more caring and considerate of others, the cuing of social support had the opposite effect:  "Social connection draws a circle around you that defines who is in and who is out.  It very clearly delineates who is 'us versus them' and when it is 'us versus them,' people outside appear to be less human."  As one proverb puts it, "The tears of strangers are only water."

The Recommendations:

1.  Pay Attention to Potential Jurors' "Social Circle."  Don't assume that the more connected juror will be more benevolent to your client.  A potential juror may be sociable and well connected, but with whom?  If that circle doesn't include people or entities like your client, then the net effect could be negative.  This is one good reason for conducting a social media analysis of those who may hear your case.

2.  Be Careful Not to Define Your Client In a Way that Promotes Dehumanization.  We've written about the dehumanizing effect of seeing companies as faceless "corporations" rather than people, and have measured the tendency for those with no integrated or social experience with corporations to be much more anti-corporate in their attitudes.  The Time Magazine article points to another possible attribution to avoid:  "Although the notion of addiction as brain disease may absolve addicts of some of the blame for their affliction, it also suggests that they are not operating under free will.  Since dehumanization itself involves seeing people as having ‘less mind’ and a reduced ability to plan or control behavior, that view may increase the stigma of the condition, not reduce it.” 

3.  Cue Social Relationships that Include People Like Your Client It is important to note that the studies did not directly measure social connectedness, but rather the effect of "cuing" or reminding people of those networks.  The same technique can be employed in your messages in court.  For example, by asking in voir dire about panelists' experiences living, working with, or assisting those with addictions, you are inviting them to see that group as "in" rather than "out."  Another recent study (Motyl et al., 2011) found that subtly priming people to think about experiences they shared with people from other cultures tended to decrease negative attitudes and prejudice. 

As stated, dehumanization might sound like an extreme attitude — something we associate with the holocaust or the famous Milgram study on obedience.  However, the more subtle ability to constrict our circle of concern and to see others as impersonal objects is more common, and definitely relevant to the challenges of litigation.  In describing your client and telling your story, be sure you are creating a message that makes you a "member."  

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ResearchBlogging.org Adam Waytz and Nicholas Epley (2011). Social Connection Enables Dehumanization Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, (In press) : 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.07.012

Photo Credit:  Son of Groucho, Flickr Creative Commons

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