I’m not sure what it is about California, but I’ve been reliably called for jury duty every single year I’ve lived here. Though there’s a culture surrounding griping about jury duty, I don’t mind it; as a student, I have flexibility in my schedule, and it’s nice to feel like I’m taking an active role as a U.S. citizen.
Of the five years I’ve been scheduled for jury duty, there have been only two instances that I’ve had to actually report to the courthouse: two years ago, and this year. Both times, I sat in the courtroom as juries were vetted and chosen by attorneys, and both times, I was frustrated by how the legal system fails to take into account basic psychological biases. Some things I noticed:
- Objections, striking things from the record, or asking juries to disregard a question. In a common thought experiment used in intro psych classes, the professor will ask students to NOT think of a pink elephant. The result is, of course, that everyone pictures a pink elephant, despite being told not to. Telling people to forget something does not make them forget it; in fact, ironic processing theory suggests it makes people dwell on the thought even more. If judges are asking people in the court to disregard something, that’s a hopeless task; what’s said is said, and it’s highly unlikely people are able to purposely not consider a piece of information they’ve heard, even if they’re told not to.
- Hard-to-define instructions for juries. Several potential jurors had served on other juries - some civil, some criminal. The judge explained that those two types of cases have different standards for convicting the defendant (see this Wikipedia article): in criminal cases, juries should only convict if they can do so “beyond a reasonable doubt,” whereas in civil cases, juries can convict if they’re “more than 50% sure” (judge’s words, verbatim). How is a juror to know the difference? How do we know one juror’s standards are the same as the others’? Do we care?
- The presumption that vetting jurors weeds out bias. Humans are biased in all sorts of ways - and vetting people to see whether they have similar professions to the defendants/plaintiffs only weeds out a very specific type of bias.
- Leading questions and social pressures. Attorneys asked potential jurors questions like, “Do you harbor ill-will towards the government?” It’s no secret that in our society, openly admitting to harboring ill-will towards the government is not socially acceptable, and probably grounds for getting your name on an NSA/TSA watchlist. Social desirability bias occurs even in more controlled settings where people are answering surveys in a room alone; surely, attorneys will get an event less accurate read on a potential juror by asking him/her this question in front of 50 other people!
This is just the tip of the iceberg - there are many more studies about the groupthink and suboptimal decision making that occurs in juries, or the reliability of eye-witness testimony. I see why our legal system is set up the way it is, but there must be a way we can get cognitive scientists and professionals in the justice system to work out modifications to account for these issues.