Mistakes, Cognitive Dissonance and Jurors

Stephanie West Allen writes a book review of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson appropriately titled : Wrong? Me? No way! That's not how I see it

Tavris and Aronson have written a thorough coverage of the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. That's the feeling in your brain when you find that you are holding two inconsistent thoughts or beliefs; it's like an itch that needs to be scratched.

Aronson in the interview says resolving the dissonance is a drive like thirst or hunger. The book describes the lengths we will go to in order to achieve consonance — lengths which can be mind-boggling, laughable, or dangerous.

For example, let's say that you consider yourself a bright and savvy person and you do something, well, a bit dumb. You now have yourself some dissonance. How do you scratch it? The chances of your modifying your self-concept are low. You must do something with this incident of bungling.

Ah, hah! You can revise your opinion of it! It was not so dumb after all. In fact, of decisions you have made, this may have been one of the wisest. Don't laugh. We all resolve dissonance and our methods may be just as slippery.

I think we can all see ourselves at times going through this same justification-of-a-blunder process. We’ve all done it in one form or another. It’s human nature. [Speaking of human nature, check out Stephanie’s new blog Brains on Purpose: Neuroscience and Conflict Resolution.]

Back to cognitive dissonance…what is it about her description of that phenomenon that makes me think of some juries?  Well, let’s start with this:

Criminal defense lawyers that never gotten a guilty verdict, when they believe they should have gotten a Not Guilty… aren’t trying enough cases.

Perhaps I’ll expound on that theorem (that I just made up) in a later post, but here’s the point for this one.

When you talk with a jury after a guilty verdict in a case where you feel strongly that it should have been that magical two word not guilty verdict instead, you often leave the jury room with a somewhat bitter feeling. You hear things like:

  • Something must have happened and it seemed like he was involved
  • We all felt like he was probably guilty (sometimes adding “of something”)
  • The police have a tough job, and we had to take his word for it

…among other things. And the criminal defense lawyer’s reaction is usually to think (to themselves) but measured beyond a reasonable doubt you are telling me the verdict should have been Not Guilty.

It sure seems at those times that while some jurors are even apologetic about their verdict, others use these same rationales to argue that they reached the correct decision.

Assuming most (some?) of my readers are in agreement that the statements listed above that jurors make do not justify a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, I’ll ask them this:

What common statements from jurors have you heard that you would put in the cognitive dissonance category?

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Jim K - August 5, 2007 11:45 PM

My favorite was; "Nobody thought the state had made their case, but we didn't want her to think she was getting away with something."

Fortunately, ONE juror was rational enough to hang the jury and the state didn't refile.

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