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.