February 16, 2017

When You Want to Know, Ask Directly…Sometimes

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm: 

Maze shortcut

In voir dire, sometimes you want to choose a strategic and indirect way of asking, and sometimes you just want to come straight out and ask the question directly. In an interesting illustration of the difference between the two, Jeremy Dean’s Psyblog recently shared the story of what must have been a “slap-my-head” moment for the social scientists involved. You see, there has been a long-running interest in the psychology of narcissism, defined as self-centeredness combined with feelings of high entitlement and low empathy for others. But here is the funny part: For almost four decades, the standard way to measure individual narcissism was through a psychometric scale known as the “Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” (Raskin & Hall, 1979). This scale is comprehensive, detailed, composed of seven factors (authority, superiority, exhibitionism, entitlement, vanity, exploitativeness, and self-sufficiency), and includes forty questions in total. More recently, however, a research team (Konrath, Meier, & Bushman, 2014) discovered that most of the value of that scale could be captured in a single question. And that question boils down to, “Are you a narcissist?” 

This perspicuous shift is captured in what the researchers, with probably a little bit of vanity, call the “Single Item Narcissism Scale,” SINS for short. The single item is, “To what extent do you agree with this statement: ‘I am a narcissist’ (Note: The word ‘narcissist’ means egotistical, self-focused, and vain).” Participants answered on a seven-point scale ranging from “not very true of me” to “very true of me.” In a total of 11 studies involving 2,250 research participants, the researchers found that the single item measure has a level of agreement (“convergent validity” to the wonks) that is at least as good as other measures of narcissism and carries similar correlation sizes. One implication for lawyers and trial consultants in voir dire is a reassuring one: You don’t always need the fancy scale, and can sometimes rely on a single-pointed question. But for me, the most interesting point is why the direct question works so well in this case, because that also points out the reasons why it does not work so well in other contexts. So in this post, I’ll directly look at the direct question: when and why it works and when and why it doesn’t.  

Ask Directly When Social Desirability Favors an Honest Answer

Here is an interesting question: Why, after all the development of a comprehensive narcissism scale, did it work as well to just ask someone, “Hey, are you a narcissist?” The reason it worked had to do with the perceived social desirability of the answer. Brad Bushman, one of the developers of the single-item scale explains, “People who are willing to admit they are more narcissistic than others probably actually are more narcissistic. People who are narcissists are almost proud of the fact. You can ask them directly because they don’t see narcissism as a negative quality — they believe they are superior to other people and are fine with saying that publicly.” So in other words, perceptions of social desirability work to push non-narcissists toward saying they aren’t narcissists, and to push actual narcissists toward admitting that they are narcissists. So social perceptions in this case tend to favor the honest answer. 

There are other situations where social desirability favors honesty. When asking about experiences or views that would make the potential juror a leader, then you are dealing with qualities that people, the leaders at any rate, will own up to. In addition, the questioning attorney can also create the conditions for greater perceived social desirability in the way the question is framed. For example, when asking about a specific opinion — too many lawsuits, for example — start by normalizing it, saying that many in society hold that opinion, maybe even you yourself. That helps to reduce or remove any stigma jurors might feel in admitting to the attitude. 

But Ask Indirectly When Social Desirability Favors the Dishonest Answer

Because the whole point of voir dire is to discover negative attitudes and experiences that would make it harder for jurors to give fair consideration of your case, the goal is often to uncover views that aren’t naturally going to seem socially desirable. Attitudes about race are probably the best example. Inside a courtroom, you are forced to use something much less direct than, “Do you harbor racial bias?” and outside of court, researchers are forced to use one of the most indirect measures of all: an Implicit Association Test that focuses on unconscious bias. 

The courtroom procedure itself probably makes disclosure harder rather than easier. By framing the reasons for challenges and strikes as “biases,” the in-court voir dire is telling panelists that these are attitudes that a good juror would not have, and views that a juror who can follow the instructions will be able to set aside. 

For that reason, the best practice is to distrust self-diagnosis, and, of course, to avoid labeling the attitudes as “biases,” and to instead discuss them as the kinds of normal attitudes that everyone has to varying degrees. Instead of asking about an attitude while telegraphing that this attitude would make things unfair to your side, save that language for the cause challenge. When you are just trying to learn more as a foundation for your strikes, target the negative attitude in a less direct way. For example, in exploring potential bias against large corporations, an indirect way would be to ask about work experience with large companies: Those who have little to none are significantly more likely to treat companies as faceless and evil. 

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Other Posts on Voir Dire: 

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Konrath, S., Meier, B. P., & Bushman, B. J. (2014). Development and validation of the single item narcissism scale (SINS). PLOS one, 9(8), e103469.

Raskin, R. N., & Hall, C. S. (1979). A narcissistic personality inventory. Psychological reports.

Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license, edited. 

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