Saturday, April 20, 2013

Weapons of Influence in the Courtroom: Applying Cialdini to Jury Duty

Perhaps an indication of my somewhat spoiled and privileged life, the absolutely most trying and painful time of my life thus far did not deal with heartbreak, violence or poverty.  The most trying time of my life was being on a jury with, what I eventually concluded to be, low-life idiots.  I struggled to reconcile the events that happened during deliberation with what we were told was our duty as the jury - we were doing everything wrong.  To this day, it brings back painful memories and feelings of resentment and subtle regret.  By the letter of the law, he was never proven guilty, but the jury found him guilty on four counts, sending him into 16 years of jail time nevertheless.  

Robert Cialdini, a professor at my alma mater who happens to live in the same city as me, is considered the world's leading expert on how to influence people.  His book "Influence" details what he calls the weapons of influence, and goes into detail about why, how and when they work, and how we can defend when others attempt to use them against us.  I read the book years ago, by recommendation of my Dad, and even had the privilege of attending one of Professor Cialdini's lectures while I was going through my MBA program.  While the book is now a bit dated, and some of the examples are too old for me to relate to, the principles remain sound and profiteers continue to come up with new ways to apply these weapons of influence.  I just finished re-reading it, and am astounded at how much value I got out of it the second time around.  Even without recalling specifically that I had drawn some practices from this book, I recognize that I have, indeed, incorporated many of these devices into my own dealings with other people.  The most shocking, though, is my realization that Cialdini's weapons of influence explain what happened in jury duty better than any explanation I could muster.  Because I am generally a positive person and I don't like to linger on my negative experiences, I don't regularly think about the jury duty experience unless someone or something triggers me very directly to recall it.  So I probably wouldn't have even thought to apply his weapons of influence to that situation except that one of his examples was an apparently common practice judges use in jury cases that seems to have been used during my trial.  That got the ball rolling, and I started to realize just how many other weapons of influence impacted the final result of that trial.  

The case was about four counts of statutory rape, because the girl was 16 and the guy was 18, but the girl had been begging for it so its not like it wasn't consensual, if it indeed happened.  And there was actually evidence against it even having happened.  That's what made the case so difficult for me - at 16, I think she knew what she was doing and she was horny.   I published my jury duty journal here so you can read my raw experience.  For this blog post, I'll just refer to a few strange things that happened.  

First of all, the most compelling evidence in the case was that a prisoner came in, wearing Sheriff Joe's well-known humiliating pink handcuffs and pink accessories.  The prisoner was unruly and uncooperative and was clearly not here to help the prosecution, even though he was their witness.  The prosecuting attorney asked the prisoner to read from a transcript that was supposedly a conversation had by this prisoner and an investigator.  In it, he essentially admitted to having proof that the crimes were indeed committed.  When the prosecutor asked if the transcript was correct, however, the prisoner denied having ever said those things.  The prosecutor looked at him in disbelief, "You mean to tell me you DIDN'T say those things?  That the transcript is WRONG? Do you want me to get the tapes and play them for you?"  The prisoner continued saying that he never said those things and the transcript was falsified and the tapes weren't real.  After quite an ordeal, the judge actually dismissed the jury in order to have a one-on-one chat with the witness, supposedly to gain cooperation.  When we were brought back in, he was no more cooperative, and were dismissed and brought back a number of times before the prisoner was finally dismissed as a witness.  The judge then instructed us to strike this entire interview from our notes and that we were not to use it as evidence in our decision making process.  

I should mention, too, that I went into the jury duty experience with excitement to see justice at work and a patriotic sense of doing my duty as a citizen of this great country, and all that jazz.  So for me, I wanted to follow the letter of the law to the T, and I felt like I was very objective in my analysis of the case.  This being the only reliable evidence that was ever presented in the two week trial, and having it stricken from our records, that left us with absolutely zero evidence.  Thus, the rule innocent until proven guilty would imply that there is no reason that man should have been convicted.  Anything other than innocent on all four accounts made absolutely no sense.  

The second oddest thing that happened was during deliberation in the privacy of the juror's room.  We started off by taking an initial vote which was split down the middle, but the next morning the vote was slanted towards a verdict of innocent on all four accounts.  We initially got traction in the direction of "not guilty".  Yet over the next several days, I watched in bewilderment as individuals on "my side" flip flopped and changed their decision to guilty, until I was the only hold out.  One might think that if we had started out leaning towards innocent, that the majority would be able to sway the minority, but exactly the opposite happened.  People seemingly in their right minds switched to operating based on false evidence.  

Having revisited this incident with the fresh eyes of Cialdini's genius, I can conclude that a number of weapons of influence worked in the favor of the prosecution, whether intentional or not.  The incident with the prisoner's dismissed account was what spurred me to reevaluate my jury duty experience.  It was this "practice" I came to read about in Cialdini's book; it was the weapon of scarcity, combined a little with the contrast principle.  Having received the information and then having it taken away, jurors tend to put more emphasis on that information instead of disregarding it; even to the point of using that as the only evidence.  So without any other weapons of influence, the judge may have decided the case for us with just this one act.  I had a sense the whole time that the judge didn't like the defendant anyways, so in hindsight, it wouldn't surprise me if the judge used this tactic intentionally, as Cialdini suggests is often the case.  

But there were several other applications of the weapons of influence at work.  For one, the prosecuting lawyer has a stature of being an authority, so when he criticizes the criminals involved in the case, we take the lawyer's word even if it is being denied by the witnesses.  We also had a detective on the stand, and his position also demands authority, thus we trust him more than the convicted felons.  In fact, the juror guidelines forbid us to take the word of a police or detective over other witnesses simply because of their position, but that doesn't mean all the jurors can actually do this in their heads.  The authority principle works on our subconscious, so we don't even recognize when we're giving more credibility to the title than it deserves.  The contrast principle can also be at work here, going from untrustworthy felon to trusted police investigator signals that we can relax now, the nice policeman is going to tell us what we need to know.  

Another weapon of influence at work was liking, or in this case, disliking.  Throughout the trial, there were multiple references to play up the unsavory character of the defendant.  He had DUIs, he had a pregnant underage girlfriend (and he was over 18), he had a malicious pit bull who attacked a police officer, he broke in and robbed the house of the victim.  There were even allusions to, without allowing it to be said out loud, gang-related activities.  All this painted the picture that I think persuaded most of my juror peers:  he's just a piece of shit.  To the most outspoken and adamant of them, he clearly is a horrible person and deserved to be locked up regardless of whether or not he committed these specific crimes.  It sounds ridiculous, of course, even as I write it, but that was the mentality during deliberation.  It also starkly breaks another rule in the juror's playbook, something about prior convictions are not evidence for this crime.  In fact, I think one of the jurors may have said something to the effect of, "Well we know he had sex with a minor because his girlfriend is pregnant, so obviously he must have had sex with the underage girl in this case."  So without even a real conviction, and frankly, I don't know if we even knew whether the girlfriend's baby was his or not, these extremists assumed he was a repeat offender and that we better lock the guy up before he commits more statutory rape.  

What's interesting is that so many people were swayed to the other side, so the principles of public commitment and consistency did not seem to hinder them from changing sides.  Social proof, too, seems to have been dismissed because the majority at the beginning was unable to win over the balance; the exact opposite happened.  The powers of scarcity, authority and (dis-)liking seemed to have overwhelmed the other weapons of influence, leading to illogical accusations and ultimately, convictions.  Convictions that still don't sit right with me today.  Perhaps all jurors should have Cialdini's "Influence" as a required reading before the court proceedings, to better understand what weapons of influence may be used and how to think rationally and defend against them.  Maybe then we can have a just justice system. 

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