Monthly Archives: April 2018

Battling Confirmation Bias and First Impressions in Litigation

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

Confirmation bias refers to when people accept or reject evidence based upon what they want to believe as opposed to basing it on the actual merits of the evidence. In some ways, it is a psychological survival mechanism tied to our beliefs about how the world works. Challenges to these beliefs can cause a great deal of chaos and stress, so our brains are, essentially, pre-programmed to seek out evidence that reinforces those beliefs, while minimizing, explaining away, or outright rejecting evidence that challenges them. In fact, this explains the siloed media we have today where people tend to pick which news channels to watch based upon their political affiliation.

For lawyers, confirmation bias can be a significant problem at trial, especially when the first impressions favor the other party. As Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes, “The sequence in which we observe characteristics of a person is often determined by chance. Sequence matters, however, because the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted.” In other words, first impressions at trial often shape how jurors perceive the subsequent evidence and testimony at trial. A poor first impression of the defendant will likely lead jurors to place greater focus and emphasis on evidence and testimony that reinforces the negative view of the defendant and vice versa. Continue reading

Using Jury Instructions More Effectively in Closing Argument


By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

One of the studies that I like to cite more than just about any is the old 3M study that showed that people remember only about 10% of what they are told three days after it is told to them. Apply this to a trial setting and the implication is that jurors will forget up to 90% of what they heard over the course of a trial by the time they reach the deliberation room. To put it a different way, by the time jurors reach the deliberation room, they are overwhelmed, do not remember the majority of what they just heard, and face the difficult task of having to sort through hundreds to thousands of exhibits, their largely disorganized notes, and a stack of jury instructions that can be difficult to decipher. Continue reading