Some of the high profile criminal cases today leave communities in tears and lawmakers frantic. It is a wonder how some of these verdicts are reached. Many modes of media look for closure and do further analysis of why these cases turn out the way they do. Essentially, there’s not enough evidence or the charges are incongruent with the crime. But what’s not examined is the psychological components that go into making such tough decisions, like deciding who’s life to spare or sending someone to prison forever. Confirmation bias, conformity, and groupthink are all confounds that hinder the decision making process of groups. Though the legal system aims to have a methodology of checks and balances and review and analysis, groups can sometimes limit the use of rationale. It is important to understand three group biases to see just how reductive groups may be.
Humans by nature are social beings. Abraham Maslow noted how acceptance and the feeling of belonging are key aspects to a person’s psychological well-being. Because humans have a need to feel acceptance and belonging, people adhere to the social and cultural norms of their society. The need to fit in creates conflict within the legal system since people will behave out of appeasement rather than moral and legal ethics. Pressure upon the jury, by judges, prosecutors, and the media, can confound the jury process. This pressure induces conformity, as members of the jury will seek to adhere to the group’s decision, as each member submits public compliance. This is done for many reasons: to save time, to prevent ridicule, to prevent giving an explanation for dissenting views, or simply out of disinterest. No matter the reason, people are affected by informational social influence and by normative social influence. People may mimic the behavior of others because they feel that others hold more information or the correct information necessary for the situation; or, people behave in specific ways only because that behavior is normally accepted and expected. This herd mentality is dangerous as people may be assimilating into an immoral, irrational, or even prejudice position, all for the sake of maintaining social safety.
Most people would probably rate themselves as honest and open-minded. No one can always be 100% correct, 100% of the time. But what most don’t realize is that people seek to confirm only what they believe is true. Information presented will often be information that supports the stances of the presenter and any information on the contrary will be excluded. Members of a jury may seek to view evidence that corroborates the verdict they want to be reach. This confirmation bias has no place in the legal system. If members of a jury do not include all matters of evidence and only rationalize the pieces that make the puzzle they would like to assume, many will face wrongful convictions and unjust acquittals. In the film, “Twelve Angry Men”, most members of the jury used confirmation bias by only acknowledging on the sole eyewitness testimony and stereotypes of the suspect. Had it not been for the minority dissenter, the men would have reached an irrational guilty verdict, and sent the wrong person to death. Like the possible outcome in Twelve Angry Men, the justice system has sentenced many others for crimes they did not commit. Confirming the accuracy of information is vital, but this must include all of the evidence, dispositions, environment, and accessory details from both sides of the case.
In and of itself, deliberation facilitates groupthink. Six to twelve-person juries may be present with few strong leaders, self-censorship by not voicing opposing opinions to a guilty/not guilty verdict, and compulsion to uphold the groups unison. This induces feeling of invulnerability, high moral purpose, time sensitivity, and unanimous decision making rules. Some of the jurors may exhibit social-loafing, letting others make the major determinants of guilty while they latch on to what’s popular. Within groupthink, members of the group don’t actually join together to make better choices, yet they act in faulty decision instead. The more similar the backgrounds and the longer the group is formed, the more groupthink occurs. Groupthink and social loafing are both present in the film “Twelve Angry Men”. Members of the jury a decide the fate of a suspected murder, where all but one juror decides the suspects innocence based on the decision of the group. Some members formed reasoning based on isolated facts, which turned out to be untrue or stereotypes. Other members just followed what the others said. Luckily, the single vote for not guilty came from someone who was willing to openly and honestly rationalize all the evidence with his peers. The importance of introspection and analysis can not go unnoticed or unaccounted for. Every jury needs to inspect each piece of detail given with timely care, accuracy, and proper perspective analysis. How the evidence is presented plays a major part in this and how it is handled is vital to the outcome of a case.
It is obvious that the criminal justice needs reform. The issues presented are only a small glimpse into the world of law. In every case, members of the jury should be able to rationalize the severity of the outcome and avoid bias thinking at all cost. Each member should be able to look at all the facts objectively, analyze the situational perspective of the defendant’s actions, and issue a verdict that reflects the facts of the matter in the case. A task for applied social psychologist would be to help facilitate more objectivity in jurors. One method could include issuing private ballots that require at least five pieces of evidence as determined by the jury. Even if a fool-proof method of providing a verdict was found, humans are prone to error and mistakes. Jurors on many of the high profile cases have admitted to being emotionally moved, but unable to make a guilty verdict based on the evidence provided. Only in a legal system where jurors are removed from possible bias and provided an adequate amount of admissible evidence can an accurate reflection of justice be shown.