Smarter Jurors Might Not Be The Answer You Are Looking For


In all of my days working predominantly for the defense in civil cases, my clients have openly longed for “intelligent” jurors who they believed would take the time to really understand the case and see that the plaintiff’s emotional appeals are hollow and that there is much more to the case than what the plaintiff’s attorney would lead them to believe. In short, the belief has always been that smart jurors will see through the nonsense. In Seattle, where I live, this has translated to the age-old tradition of plaintiffs’ attorneys automatically striking Boeing engineers who used to show up in every venire.

This belief is not unreasonable. After all, it is easy to presume that people with higher levels of intelligence are going to be better equipped to both understand and sort through details and complexities, and less likely to rely on peripheral cues and other types of distractions. Even more, attorneys often believe these “intelligent” jurors will play some sort of leadership role in deliberations, helping prevent the less intelligent jurors from taking over the discussion and rendering a nonsensical verdict.

It might be time to rethink these assumptions. It turns out that “smart” jurors are not, in fact, that smart. Specifically, intelligence does not translate to intelligent decision-making. There is also the difficulty of identifying jurors with true intelligence. Is academic achievement the signifier of intelligence? This is probably what most people would point to, but academic achievement has become so specialized. For example, I have a Ph.D. in legal communication and psychology. Some might say I have reached the highest level of academic accomplishment, but the mere fact that I have a Ph.D. does not mean that I am any better equipped to make sense of the issues in a medical malpractice case.

Notably, new research confirms that intelligence is not necessarily correlated to intelligent decision-making. In fact, studies have found that intelligence can actually make simple biases, such as motivated reasoning, much worse. In theory, smart people should have the ability to spot biases such as motivated reasoning in action and have the mental fortitude to stop them. However, research shows this is not the case at all. In fact, new research shows that intelligence can actually make motivated reasoning even worse.

In her bestselling book Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke points out that, “the smarter you are, the better you are at constructing a narrative that supports your beliefs, rationalizing it, and framing the data to fit your argument or point of view.” She points to research on blind spot bias, an irrationality where people can recognize bias in others, but cannot see it in themselves. It may not be particularly surprising that people can recognize when others are biased, but struggle to recognize it in themselves, but the findings of a 2012 study by psychologists West, Meserve and Stanovich, show that blind spot bias “is greater the smarter you are.”

Consequently, it may be time to stop worrying about the intelligence level of your venire members and instead use your voir dire time to uncover the pre-existing beliefs and prior experiences that may lead them to see only one conclusion regardless of whether or not the evidence actually supports that conclusion. In fact, the failure to do so could have tragic consequences. Afterall, as Duke points out, intelligent jurors are likely to have greater success rationalizing their biased views of the case to their fellow jurors and driving an irrational verdict.

Study cited: West, R. F., Meserve, R. J., & Stanovich, K. E. (2012). Cognitive sophistication does not attenuate the bias blind spot. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(3), 506–519.



More to explorer