Tag Archives: polarization

Group Polarization & How It Impacts Your Verdict

Juror deliberations are complicated dynamic processes.  The whole of the group is greater than the sum of its individual parts.  Often people think that deliberations are a series of compromises – and in some ways, they are.  On some issues and in some groups, jurors compromise on damages figures and charges.  But not all of deliberations are compromises.  Sometimes deliberations result in the exact opposite of compromise – a polarizing of attitudes.

Polarization means that jurors who started out with more middle of the road attitudes (just slightly leaning to one side) when put into a group setting become more extreme in their viewpoints.  This means that you can have a group of jurors who individually are fairly open-minded and undecided but who end up extremely opinionated when they enter a room with other jurors and begin discussing the case.

Part of the reason for polarization is that once a juror expresses his/her viewpoint, they are much more wed to that viewpoint in public because there is a stereotype that weak people change their minds and “give in” or admit they were wrong.  No one wants to be weak.  David Ball and his partners have done numerous years of research on jurors and the primitive brain (Reptilian brain).  Their research tells us that the weak member of a group is in danger for their lives.  It is a strong human drive to avoid being seen as weak.  Therefore, jurors may stick to a viewpoint they espoused early on even if they later feel differently.  The result can be a group of jurors who are so split on values that you end up with a hung jury.

One way to prevent this is to explain to jurors how to deliberate.  Groups that start deliberations by discussing their views on the evidence rather than taking polls on verdict questions tend to be much more collaborative and polarization is much less likely.   Suggest to jurors that when they get into the deliberation room, they first and foremost go around the room and discuss their views on the evidence without taking votes.

Polarization also has implications for how you conduct and read into focus group research.  Realize that if you do a non-deliberation type of focus group (or survey research), the results can be misleading when put into a group setting.  Jurors do not decide cases in isolation and the group dynamics make a difference.  That is not to say that those non-deliberation types of research are useless – they certainly have their separate purposes – but do not assume that you know how your deliberations at trial are likely to turn out if you rely solely on individual responses.

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If you’ve ever done a focus group and tracked juror attitudes as the case progresses from plaintiff’s statement through defendant’s statement and into juror deliberations, you may have seen group polarization in action.  Sometimes, jurors will indicate a viewpoint and leaning on questionnaires before deliberations which then seems to be an understatement of their actual leanings when you hear them voice their strong opinions in the group discussion.  For example, a juror who indicates that she “slightly agrees” with the defense position on a questionnaire may very quickly become a strong defense advocate in deliberations.  This process by which jurors become entrenched in their positions is called group polarization.

Research has shown that after participating in a group discussion, participants tend to advocate more extreme positions than individuals who did not participate in any such discussion.  This effect applies to liability as well as damages.  In deliberations, jurors often advocate for damage awards that are either larger or smaller than an amount the juror indicates on their individual questionnaires before deliberations begin.  Where jurors favor a relatively low award, discussion can lead to an even smaller verdict.  Conversely, where jurors individually favor a large verdict the verdict ends up even larger after deliberations.

This is one reason why deliberations are so important during focus groups and mock trials.  Concept focus groups, which do not allow for deliberations, are helpful for certain matters and at a certain point in the case.  However, if you are preparing for trial and need to know what jurors as a group are likely to do with your case, you want to see them deliberate.  Watch for the language they use to convince one another that the verdict should be larger.  Watch for language your opposition jurors use to lure other jurors more toward a defense verdict.  Observe whether the group dynamics are in your favor or against you.  Be aware that if you do a concept focus group without any deliberations, the results of a trial may be very different – for better or worse – with group polarization.  Further, when analyzing questionnaires from jurors, realize that their responses in a group discussion may differ from their responses on paper.

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