The Tragedy of Groupthink in Juries

In the courtroom, the vital outcome depends solely on the members of the jury. It is frightening to imagine that people holding such an important decision could be subject to groupthink and conformity.

The phenomenon of groupthink has been observed in courtrooms around the globe and continues to be a menace to the justice system. According too Aronson, groupthink is a kind of thinking in which maintaining group agreement overrides a careful consideration of the fact in a realistic manner (433). For example, a juror may avoid presenting their dissenting opinion if all previous opinions are the opposite in order to side-step social tension.

This form of compliance is common in juries because nonconformity is known to cause physiological pain. According to research done by Nicole L. Waters and Valerie P. Hans, one-third of jurors out of three thousand five hundred stated that their decisions would have varied from the final decision had they been in a jury of one. This evidence is supported by Asch’s line experiment in which multiple participants went against their better judgment in order to conform to the group.

Some psychologists advise that when making an important group-decision, a devil’s advocate is always present in order to neutralize cohesiveness. The role of the devil’s advocate consists of making agreements against the opinion of the majority. This results in the avoidance of a false sense of assurance in the final decision. The action of the dissenter undermines the authority held by the majority and may to lead to others following suit. Once a variance has been established, there is more individualistic thinking and conversation is more interactive and progressive. In the line experiment done by Asch, once a dissenter voiced her or his opposing opinion, others felt more comfortable with voice their true thoughts.

Another important aspect of conformity that can drastically impact the outcome of the case is the interest in the activity of the person’s involved. Jurors are likely to conform and vote with the majority if they are not engrossed in the trial proceedings. On the other hand, if jurors are intrigued by goings-on, they tend to be more vocal in their opinions and more motivated to sway other members of the jury towards their opinion in order to reach the conclusion that they feel to be correct. This possession of this knowledge could result in bettering the justice system.

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~ by emilyamcg on July 14, 2010.

7 Responses to “The Tragedy of Groupthink in Juries”

  1. It would appear that conformity plays a major role in juries nationwide.
    My question is a simple one: what can reasonably be done to introduce dissenting opinions into jury rooms in order to encourage fair verdicts?

    Manipulating the jury undermines the justice system, and emphasizing the importance of dissent in the jury selection process does as well. It would appear we have encountered a boundary ingrained in our current justice system. What, if anything should we do about it?

    • This post is not in any way proposing to manipulate the juries votes in any way; it is pretty much the opposite. Conformity is already manipulating the jury to sway their votes in favor of the majority in many cases. However, this post is encouraging juries across the nation to consider all the alternative decisions, and the supporting ideas for these alternatives, in order to avoid the juries’ being manipulated in any way, shape, or form. Just thought it might be helpful to clear this up a bit. Thanks for your comment.
      -Emily

  2. I think that instead of a devils advocate, they should make the jurors reveal their beliefs separately and not let each of the other jurors know before reconvening to discuss other possibilities

  3. It’s amazing to realize the immense power of conformity and “group think” in today’s legal system. A juror’s internal thoughts or beliefs can be easily deserted in favor of following the crowd, or rather, the 11 other jurors sitting on the case with them. Although this issue might not matter too much in minor legal cases, when it comes to trials involving the death penalty, the ramifications of forgoing one’s ideals for the sake of others are great.

    In the novel “Change of Heart”, bestselling author Jodi Picoult discusses this issue by engrossing her readers in a story about a young college student that got called for jury duty in a major crime trial. The jury has the power to sentence the defendant to the death penalty, which is something this man has been against his entire life. However, he is swayed by the other members of the jury to agree with the death penalty against his moral principles, sentencing the defendant to death. This young man spends the rest of his life working in the Catholic church, trying to atone for what he had done.

    I’m sure we all would like to think that we would be the one person not afraid to voice their opinions (the infamous “nonconformist”) in a group, but the truth of the matter is we’ve all given up our desires for the sake of following others. This is attributed to many reasons, including physiological pain and the fear of being looked at differently or in a negative light . These factors keep us from expressing our true thoughts and beliefs, pushing us to go against our moral principles in both the legal system and out of it.

    Crazy right?? It’s definitely something to think about.

    That’s all for now. =)

  4. Personally, I feel a similar obligation to conform in an everyday situation; school. At school, I sometimes have an opinion that contradicts what either most of my class is saying, or with what my teacher is saying. I have talked to my friends, and they too find themselves unwilling to challenge the majority or the teacher, for fear of refutation, and negative judgments from peers. Fortunately, Katie encourages us to do exactly that, and to go as far as to defend a stance we don’t believe.
    But this form of conformity is far too common in everyday life, in and out of school. For whatever reason, whether it be ego, desire to fit in, or fear of failure, we as people are limited in our abilities to express ourselves and our opinions. Although it is human nature that makes us act this way, I view this bad habit as something to overcome, and to ignore, so that I can learn to voice my opinions freely.

    • I understand exactly where you’re coming from, and wish you luck in this future endeavor. Being kind of a quiet person myself, I have just recently started to make my opinions known. Just thought to let you know you are definitively not alone in this, it’s like a club. Very exclusive and all. Mmmmmk, so this may be an awkward reply, but yeah.
      -Emily

  5. I like the connection between the dissenter in the Asch line studies and the devil’s advocate in jury deliberations…in both case, breaking unanimity can reduce the potential power of normative influence. However, the flip side of too much deliberation is that you could end up with a hung jury, which is also a problem in the legal system.

    What’s also important to remember with this discussion is that conformity doesn’t always have to be a bad thing…the reason these psychological biases exist is in part because in our evolution it’s necessary to not always be divided within a group. Just like your blog group has to decide on what to write about…where would you get if someone would never stop playing devil’s advocate?

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