What the Zimmerman Trial Teaches us about Decision-Making in America



by Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

Zimmermania is a national debate I’ve worked hard to stay clear of. Our fine mass media pundits have wrapped it so tightly in divisive opinions, leaving no speculative stone unturned in the process, that there is little to add. However, one important takeaway about the general state of American decision-making seems to have gone largely unnoticed. Millions of Americans have readily formed strong opinions about this case, rendering their own personal verdicts, despite having little in the way of actual facts about it.

Some folks may have followed the media coverage of the trial more closely than others, but media coverage is hardly reliable (Really KTVU? You really thought the Asiana Airlines pilot name was Sum Ting Wong?). The fact is, none of the millions of folks who have flooded news media comments sections and message boards or huddled around the office water cooler were at the trial. They did not hear the actual charges that were brought, the jury instructions related to those charges, and the evidence and testimony presented by each side on those charges. But if there’s one thing we Americans can be proud of, it’s that we refuse to let ignorance get in our way. Sure, we could educate ourselves and dig through the complexities of the law and evidence in the Zimmerman trial, but it’s so much easier to read those sexy CNN headlines or watch a three-minute segment on the case. For me, it’s like watching the NBA. Watching a game is not nearly as enjoyable as listening to Charles Barkley rant a bunch of provocative, albeit incoherent at times, commentary over the game. 

There are three lessons we can learn from the public verdicts on Zimmerman. The first has to do with the shortcuts we take to decision-making. Several decades of research has shown, in the face of complexity, people will find an easier, peripheral route to decision-making that helps them avoid too much mental exertion. For example, rather than consider all of the nutritional, taste, cost, and other substantive factors about Wheaties cereal versus an alternative, I used to buy Wheaties because Michael Jordan was on the front of the box. In this respect, we are a lazy species (Where are my diet pills?). We prefer soundbytes and sexy headlines over substantive analysis. Anyone who has ever picked a jury has heard a prospective juror talk about the jury who ridiculously awarded a woman $1M after she spilled coffee all over herself. But you never hear them mention the numerous citations for excessively hot coffee that McDonald’s received beforehand. You never hear them describe the god-awful injuries the woman suffered when the cup disintegrated between her legs. Those facts just aren’t as interesting for some reason. It makes for better gossip and elevator talk to just say she spilled it on herself and then tried to blame someone else.

The media has made the temptation to render personal verdicts even more seductive by introducing some core, divisive values. You have gun rights, race, and crime all mixed up into one soon-to-be Oxygen movie-of-the-week. That brings us to our second lesson: Values, not facts, drive decision-making. Talk to any electioneer and he or she will tell you that people care about issues, not facts. A wealth of political and jury research has offered plenty of confirmation. Al Gore and John Kerry were prime examples of the shortcomings of messages focused on facts rather than principles. Obama, in Reagan-like fashion, was able to reverse this perilous trend of Democratic campaigns by getting it back to core principles (hope). Values or issues activate the peripheral route of decision-making. They provide a powerful and psychological-satisfying framework that “tells us everything we need to know” about an issue without actually knowing much. In other words, some people don’t need to follow the actual law and evidence in Zimmermania because they already know how they feel about defending oneself against crime. Others already know how they feel about racism and violence against minorities.

That brings us to our third and final lesson. Academia calls it “motivated rationality.” Stephen Colbert calls it “truthiness.” Whereas Plato, Aristotle, and many other dead philosophers someone might reference at a party (who the heck invited that guy?) proposed a rational process for decision-making where one draw necessary and/or sufficient conclusions from available information, the actual process used by most folks is quite different. Research shows people tend to arrive at conclusions first and then focus on the facts and evidence that supports that conclusion while ignoring, rejecting, or discounting facts and evidence that go against that conclusion. To get back to politics, consider the Birthers. So convinced that Obama is not “one of us,” if you show them his birth certificate, they will just declare it fake. What reason do they have to believe it’s fake? Well, if Obama’s not “one of us,” it must be fake, right? This is why it is so difficult to change people’s minds on divisive issues. The very process of opinion formation tends to close the door on the opportunity for opinion change. We’re not open to change because we’re so focused on collecting more information that reinforces what we want to believe. A fMRI decision-making study at Emory University highlighted this process. Using fMRI machines to examine what goes on in subjects’ brains when they make decisions, the data showed the brain releases dopamine (the brain’s pleasure drug) when individuals are exposed to information that supports what they want to believe. The researchers described it as subjects giving themselves a “neurological pat on the back” for finding something that reinforces what the brain wants to believe.

These three lessons tell us all we need to know about decision-making. Aspiring architects of persuasion who try to get around these lessons are setting themselves up for failure.  In the litigation setting, this typically leads to cries about how “broken” our jury system is. Then, when the same attorney loses on appeal, he or she cries about how unfair or unreasonable the judges were. It goes on and on. Persuasion is about what the audience wants to believe not what you think the facts show. It doesn’t happen with just “stupid” people. This decision-making process pervades the minds of America’s brightest. It’s simply the way we are.

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