Ease over Accuracy: Why “Yeah, but…” Defense Tend to Fail

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

The “law of least effort” is an important principle for understanding jury decision-making. In short, if there are several ways of making sense of the evidence and testimony in a case, jurors will gravitate towards the one that is the least demanding for their brains. As Nobel-winning psychology Daniel Kahneman (who has spent his life studying human decision-making) states, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

In fact, research has consistently shown that we assign greater weight to information and ideas that are more easily accessible to us, regardless of whether that information or those ideas are accurate and reliable. It may be because the information or idea is familiar, easier to understand, makes more intuitive sense, or ties to something that is easier for our brain to access. Continue reading

Priming Jurors to Hate You and Your Client

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

The critical takeaway from any meaningful discussion about primacy theory and its role in persuading jurors is often the one that is least discussed. Those who tout the importance of primacy theory often talk about priming the jurors to achieve victory, but research shows the real takeaway should be to avoid the early mistakes that cost you the trial. In short, you cannot win your case in jury selection or opening, but you can lose it there.

Everybody knows first impressions are important, but some research shows that negative first impressions are much more powerful than neutral or positive first impressions. This is called the negativity bias and it has been investigated extensively by academic researchers. Specifically, negativity bias recognizes that negative experiences or perceptions have a greater effect on one’s psychological state than neutral or positive experiences. Continue reading

Preparing Witnesses to Pass the “Eyeball Test”

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

One of the most commonly-cited statistics in communication studies is that verbal communication (i.e. the words that are actually said) constitutes only 7% of how the credibility of a message is determined. 38% is the vocal quality of the message (i.e. tone, etc.), and 55% is the nonverbal component. Some scholars have disputed how these numbers have been interpreted, but research has shown over and over again that how something is said is more important than what is actually said. Setting the research aside, anyone who has ever been in a serious relationship has lived this reality.

For this reason, one of the most important parts of a witness’s testimony is the “eyeball test.” In other words, does he or she look and sound like the kind of person he or she is being portrayed as? One of the most obvious examples of the eyeball test is in medical malpractice cases. So much of jurors’ opinions in medical malpractice cases boil down to them looking at the doctor as he or she testifies and asking themselves if he or she seems like the kind of doctor they would want treating them. If the answer is yes, the jurors will often explain away bad facts. If the answer is no, those bad facts become more salient. Reiterating this phenomenon, a 2018 national survey conducted by Sound Jury Consulting found that 59% of respondents believe they can tell if someone is a good doctor just by meeting him or her and having a conversation. Continue reading

Faster is Better: Finding the Right Speaking Pace

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

 What is the most appropriate pace of speech? A common belief among trial attorneys is that it is important to slow down in opening statement and closing argument, particularly when the issues in the case are complex and/or confusing. This belief makes sense since most of us have long been taught to slow down when someone is having difficulty understanding what we are saying. In fact, the term “fast-talker” has its own derogatory meaning, suggestive of a slick salesperson who is willing to say whatever is necessary to complete the sale. However, research in psychology and persuasion suggests this common belief may actually be misguided in some respects. Continue reading

Persuading a New Generation of Millennial Jurors

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

Over the past few months, I’ve celebrated my 40thbirthday, my 15thyear in the jury consulting industry, and the 5-year anniversary of Sound Jury Consulting. In short, I’m getting older, and as we grow older, the world around us changes. One of the more interesting changes in the world of juries is the increasing number of millennials serving as jurors. Recently, I looked at the venire information from 18 trials in which I picked a jury in King County, Washington (Seattle) over the past 3 years. The sample size was large — over a 1,000 potential jurors. Nearly all of these cases were set to last two or more weeks. Of the 1,000+ individuals who showed up for jury duty, 31% were millennials (i.e. 1 in every 3 people showing up for jury duty in King County is a millennial). Continue reading

The Jurors Hated It, But It Worked

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

An important lesson I have learned from observing jurors’ decision-making in mock trials is that jurors sometimes dislike strategies that nevertheless are quite effective. They may not like what they see, yet they are still persuaded by it. These moments can be tough to digest. Besides the gut-check, it is difficult to ignore the fact that several mock jurors are criticizing something you did. However, research has shown over and over again that persuasion does not always happen at a conscious level. In other words, what jurors verbally express about something does not necessarily reflect its actual effectiveness. Continue reading

How Johnny Depp Can Sell Jurors on Fiduciary Duty in His Lawsuit Against TMG

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

Last year, famed actor Johnny Depp filed a lawsuit against his management company for professional negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and unjust enrichment among other things, essentially claiming that his management company, TMG, stole a significant amount of money from him. According to news reports, the case is expected to go to trial this coming August.

Sadly, the story of a management team ripping off its successful celebrity client has become all too common. We have consulted on a variety of these cases throughout the years, involving television and movie actors, famous musicians, and celebrity athletes. Our research has shown that these cases can be difficult for the celebrity victims, but there are significant opportunities to overcome many of the common hurdles. Continue reading

The Value of Serving a “Truth Sandwich” to Your Jurors

By Jill D. Schmid, Ph.D.

Lately I’ve been following the debate about how the media should cover Trump’s statements – whether via Tweet, rally, official statement, or press “conference.” Much of the debate comes down to how to cover what he says without reinforcing the “incorrectness” of the statements. I wrote about Trump’s ability to control the narrative when he was campaigning in the GOP primary. What was true then, and now, is that the mainstream media hasn’t learned how to regain control of the narrative. Too much of the message is a nuanced attack on the “truthfulness” of the statement, with no equally compelling articulation of the what’s really happening. Trump has learned there is power in repetition, not just his, but the media’s. Repetition is powerful (as my colleague Tom wrote about in this blog), but it becomes even more powerful if you can get others to repeat your message.

George Lakoff, a professor and author – and Trump critic, wrote recently that, “Trump knows the press has a strong instinct to repeat his most outrageous claims, and this allows him to put the press to work as a marketing agency for his ideas. His lies reach millions of people through constant repetition in the press and social media.” He goes on, “Language works by activating brain structures called ‘frame-circuits’ used to understand language. They get stronger when we hear the activating language. Enough repetition can make them permanent, changing how we view the world.”  And, here’s the heart of the message: “Even negating a frame-circuit activates and strengthens it…Continue reading

Flags, Focus, and the Importance of Shifting Jurors’ Attention to Favorable Messaging

By Jill D. Schmid, Ph.D.

When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016 during the National Anthem to protest police brutality against African-Americans, the controversy was almost immediate.  The why he was doing it didn’t matter much then, and it doesn’t seem to matter much now. Instead, the protest became about the flag, the military, or even Donald Trump. One survey in October of 2017 showed that while 57% of the respondents checked that “protesting against police violence” was “one” reason for the protests, respondents also checked other reasons: Donald Trump (26%), not sure (18%), something else (20%) and the flag (14%).

This morning, as I was watching yet another story about the “Flag protest,” I wondered if support and/or understanding of the protest would be different if the label was different. While changing the label might help (labeling it what the protest is really about, e.g., “Police Brutality Protest”), what seems to have happened with this protest is that the focus became the flag and anthem as opposed to police brutality and other injustices and inequalities in the African-American community. In other words, the manner over-shadowed the message – the focus was on the protest itself and not the reason for the protest. Continue reading

Litigating Sexual Harassment Claims in the Era of “Me Too”

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

The “me too” movement has become one of the most defining issues in American culture over the last year. We have seen a variety of celebrities and public figures lose their jobs, and the media coverage has been extensive. The movement itself seeks to raise awareness, increase dialogue, and change the way many people think about issues related to sexual harassment and abuse.

In the world of litigation, a common area where sexual harassment claims arise is in employment litigation, but I have seen little to no research into how the “me too” movement has influenced the way jurors think about and react to sexual harassment claims in employment lawsuits. Consequently, we decided to conduct a national survey to examine this issue. Some of the data came as no surprise, while other data points highlighted some concerns about the movement’s implications for the workplace. Respondents were evenly balanced along political lines, almost evenly divided between “conservatives” and “liberals,” with a large number of “moderates” as well. Continue reading