Tag Archives: primacy

Rare Insights from Jurors About Voir Dire

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

This past Friday, I conducted our first ever all-day mock jury selection workshop in Seattle. Ten attorneys spent the day conducting voir dire and picking a jury to deliberate on the product liability fact pattern we put together ahead of time. Then the mock jurors actually deliberated so we could see how well the attorneys did in voir dire and their use of peremptory strikes. We tried to match everything we could to the actual jury selection process used by our local court. The attorneys had to come up with the right questions to ask, get up and ask them effectively to the large group of mock jurors, and then track that information, along with all of the answers provided during the other attorneys’ voir dire. The mock jurors filled out individual feedback forms and also participated in a group interview where they provided their thoughts about the mock voir dire that had occurred.

It made for a fun, interesting, and insightful day. While the mock jurors had a lot to say, there were some common threads throughout their feedback that attorneys should carefully consider when drafting their own voir dire. Here are three key observations from the day: 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

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

Primed to Decide: How Impactful are Opening Statements?

My Cousin Vinny

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

Primacy and recency are, by far, the most popular theories of persuasion that arise in my discussions with attorneys. I have never heard an attorney mention “elaboration likelihood model,” but references to primacy and recency seem to come weekly at times. Primacy refers to the idea that what is presented most remains the most salient and, consequently, impactful for the audience. Recency is the opposite idea that an audience is most impacted by what it heard last.

Applied to a litigation setting, the primacy/recency debate translates to a popular debate about whether opening statements or closing arguments are more important. The traditional belief among lawyers (and in some respects, this author) is that opening statements are the most important part of trial. Many attorneys take primacy to an extreme, embracing a statistic that has been passed down through the ages that 70-90% of jurors make up their minds about the case after opening statements. In other words, these attorneys go as far as arguing that trial is essentially over after opening statements. Hans and Sweigart[1] offer a rich discussion of this belief in their analysis of civil jurors’ perceptions of attorneys, suggesting that this belief originated with a 1940 study[2] where researchers assessed liability judgments at eighteen different points in a mock trial and concluded that the vast majority of final verdicts were consistent with judgments made right after opening statements. Continue reading