Juror Economics: Guiding juror emotion is as important in deliberation room as strong arguments
By Thomas O'Toole and Kevin R. Boully
It is so important for litigators to understand jury decision-making in a practical and useful way. One of the ways we have tried to shift this understanding is by encouraging litigators to think about their case as a conversation, a series of ongoing interactions among human beings. So much attention is placed on the question of whether a key argument is persuasive, and which of the most persuasive arguments can lead to the winning result. At first glance, this makes a lot of sense. Making strong arguments seems like the key to success in the courtroom. While it is difficult to imagine anything more important, this difficulty is born from an incredibly narrow view of jury decision-making that can blind litigators to other critical factors.
Persuasive arguments are only part of courtroom persuasion. Persuasive arguments alone are typically not enough to win. For one, the content of a persuasive appeal is only about message characteristics — the message substance, structure, sequence, emphasis, and more. These are the choices you make for how to develop your strongest appeals. How your jury reacts to your messages and whether your persuasion has its intended effect is much more dependent on the more important half of the persuasion dyad — the resulting effect of your message on the audience.
Even with powerful, clear arguments jurors rarely agree on everything (or even most things) at the start — or even at the end — of their deliberations. They have varying reactions to your messages and differing ways of thinking and talking about their resulting perceptions and opinions. They have to talk it through and through that conversation they reach their verdict. This makes the framework of a conversation -- as part of a persuasive interaction -- key to thinking about persuasion in the courtroom. It is not enough to focus on whether an argument is persuasive. It is not enough to focus on whether you can persuade individual jurors. You must consider how your messages will influence the behaviors of a small group of people who disagree on many aspects of the case and must reconcile their views through conversation, debate, negotiation, and compromise.
We often argue the most important debate at trial is not the rhetorical battle between skilled attorneys (as is so often glamorized in Hollywood). The litigator is the debate coach and he or she has many tools at their disposal for coaching jurors how to influence the conversation in deliberations. You want to approach your advocacy in the role of empowering the true persuaders - your most influential jurors. We could write an entire book about strategies for influencing the conversation between jurors in deliberations, but in this column, we want to talk about how themes and arguments can impact jurors’ emotional states, and how those emotional states translate to deliberation conversations.
Attorneys have long capitalized on rousing anger towards the actions of an egregious opponent or telling the story of an incredibly sympathetic party. These are not the kind of emotions we talk about in this column. These are emotional appeals that fall solely in trial attorneys’ control. Instead, we want to focus on how jurors’ emotions affect the interpersonal dynamics in deliberations, which can have a significant impact on a juror’s motivation to be assertive, attempt to lead the discussion, or contribute to the process at all. Here are three important ways arguments and themes impact jurors’ emotional states and the jury’s interpersonal dynamic.
Arguments affect juror confidence and competence. Participating in a conversation in deliberations with a group of strangers can be intimidating and requires confidence to counterbalance fear of embarrassment. There are two relevant kinds of confidence. First, there is public speaking confidence. Most jurors have this confidence or will gain it as they relax over the course of the conversation. Some certainly have more than others, impacted by education, experience, occupation, and leadership experience. These are juror characteristics you can identify and consider in jury selection.
The second is jurors’ confidence in their ability to debate the substance. This requires they understand the argument to a sufficient degree and feel comfortable adopting and re-articulating it in deliberations. It also requires they have faith in the party or attorney sponsoring the argument. No one wants to look like a fool or be embarrassed by advancing a losing argument by an untrustworthy source. This emotional risk is offset when jurors feel they have the tools to effectively argue. Litigators must focus on presenting the case so jurors can effectively tie the winning arguments together in a few, uncomplicated steps. A strong way to do this is to reduce the argument to its most fundamental logical structure to produce an “A + B = C” simple structure that can be presented, repeated, then adopted and argued by jurors in deliberations. The key adjustment here is in moving past your confidence in the message and considering how to empower jurors to use it in conversation.
Arguments affect juror comfort through familiarity. Research in psychology has long shown how unfamiliar settings and information wreak havoc on our brains and emotional states. Familiarity gives people comfort and the sense that everything is okay and manageable. At trial, jurors are asked to change everything about their lives for days, weeks, or months and then get blasted with an unmanageable amount of complex and confusing information. It is akin to someone dumping a thousand puzzle pieces on the table and then throwing away the picture on the front of the box. To reduce their uncertainty, jurors rely heavily on the familiar. If two arguments are at odds and one feels closer to jurors’ experience, that familiarity creates comfort and impacts persuasiveness. Jurors are more likely to advocate for comfortable positions, familiar analogies, and central experiences that ring true in their lives. The key adjustment here is moving past your default view of the persuasive story and considering how a more comfortable juror can better leverage a familiar idea or theme in deliberations.
Arguments offer satisfaction when advocated and defended. Research shows our human tendency to favor positions and ideas consistent with our social identity and oppose those at odds with it. We respond emotionally to belonging to a group and protecting that group. Call it tribalism, identity, in-group, or otherwise, but we are talking the motivation and the satisfaction from making and defending decisions that protect our values and those of our tribe. Triggering this state is more emotional and social than logical or rational. “Green” jurors are satisfied by advancing and defending pro-environment ideas. “Authoritarian” jurors are satisfied by advancing and defending positions of authority and individual leadership. Framing your arguments in values that appeal to your target audience is a key opportunity as you consider jurors’ emotional states and guide them in deliberations.
Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D. is President of Sound Jury Consulting in Seattle. Kevin R. Boully, Ph.D. is Senior Consultant at Perkins Coie in Denver