Current Research: Understanding the Psychology Behind Juror Decision Making

  • November 29, 2010
  • Blog

A good lawyer must be able to reach people and particularly jurors.  Recent developments in the psychology of human decision-making are helping us do that.  The old teaching was that the minds of people serving as jurors are empty vessels and that you tell the story of your case and the jury takes that information and makes a decision.

The study of human decision-making shows that people actually do not “make decisions,” they “realize” decisions and then write or re-write your case in their heads and search for reasons/facts to fit the decision.  They form early impressions and conclusions often based upon beliefs or factors arising at an unconscious level.  They then tend to accept the facts that support their conclusions and dispose of the rest.  Psychology also teaches that people often do not know why they make the decisions they do, and if asked to explain why, the answer is incorrect.  These principles are discussed in a number of recent books about research concerning decision-making, including Blink [1] and The Culture Code[2].

Because people are not empty vessels, but are in fact already filled, lawyers need to find out what they are filled with, that is, what is important to them or will affect them as decision-makers on a jury.  But if people themselves don’t know why they make decisions, then how can we hope to influence their decision-making?  In regards to jurors, by considering psychological principles, lawyers are learning to make the client’s case not only about what the defendant did wrong, but also about the larger principle that a juror should feel affects them directly or those they love.  In many cases, this can be accomplished by emphasizing the theme of “public” safety (and danger to the “public” from defendant’s conduct) throughout the presentation.

In a personal injury case, obtaining justice for the client may be further complicated by certain biases that a juror may have.  These biases often exist at an unconscious level.  Some common biases are that all (or most) lawsuits are frivolous, that there is something wrong or improper with anyone suing someone else, and that people who do file a lawsuit are somehow automatically greedy or undeserving.

To overcome these biases and succeed o his client’s behalf, it is imperative that the injured person’s lawyer present the case at trial in a way that: (1) distinguishes this client’s case from frivolous lawsuits; (2) concentrates on establishing and re-enforcing those facts that demonstrate the credibility of the client and their claims; (3) emphasizes how the defendant broke rules of personal responsibility causing the client’s injuries and losses, while comparing that to how the client followed the rules of personal responsibility in his actions; and (4) emphasizes the theme that personal responsibility means being accountable for the results or consequences of your actions, especially how they affect (and impose costs on) other people.

About the Author: Ted Allen is a personal injury attorney in Richmond VA. With a career spanning 30 years, he has helped victims of defective products, car accidents, truck accidents and brain injury in the Richmond area and through out the state of Virginia.


[1] “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown & Co.; 2005).  See  http://www.gladwell.com/blink/index.html . [2] “The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do” by Clotaire Rapaille (Broadway Books; 2006).  See http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780767920575.