Look at Whether Your Jurors Are Reading: It May Say Something About Their Empathy

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Jury duty often involves some long waits. As people sit in the assembly room or the courtroom, it is normal for them to find something to pass the time. I’ve seen people knitting, drawing, even juggling. But, by far, the most common activity is that they’re reading a paperback that they’ve brought along. For those of us aligned with one party in litigation or the other, it is very tempting to try and get a look at the cover. But for me, more than the question of what they’re reading, the salient point may be just the fact that they’re reading. I’ve long believed that this says something about their personalities. And now, I have research to back me up on that.

In a recent doctoral dissertation in psychology (Barnes, 2021), the author looked, not specifically at reading, but at the personality factors that tend to accompany it — specifically, the tendency to imagine and embody the thoughts, feelings, and actions of fictional characters. Those with a greater tendency to ‘get into’ fiction, as measured by something called the Interpersonal Reactivity Scale, were also more empathic and more likely to exercise that empathy by giving a more lenient sentence in a mock criminal trial. In this post, I will share a bit about that study and its implications.

The Research: Greater Fantasy Engagement Means More Empathy and Lenient Sentences

The Interpersonal Reactivity Scale is, broadly speaking, a measure of empathy. It looks at the reactions of one individual to the experiences of another. But it is one specific factor of this scale, the “Fantasy Scale” that relates to the experience of fiction, and the ability to put oneself into the experience of a character and plot that are being described. Just reading for content is not the same thing as reading for vicarious experience. And it makes sense that those who have that higher ability to really experience a story, and not just understand it, are more likely to love reading enough to bring a novel with them to fill time during their jury duty. There are good reasons to believe that these readers have that empathic trait more than others.

But here is the most interesting finding of the study: Out of four factors measuring empathy, the only factor that related to greater leniency in sentencing was the fantasy scale. The author concluded, “Only individuals who scored high on the Fantasy scale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index — which measures the ability to embody the feelings and behaviors of fictional characters in books, plays, or movies — were more likely to give more lenient sentences.”

The Implication: Consider the Empathy Factor

This research, of course, is focusing on criminal sentences and not civil verdicts. But it isn’t a stretch to believe that someone who shows greater empathy to the accused would also show greater empathy to parties in a civil conflict.

So the first question is, who are they going to feel for? The assumption may be that it would be for the plaintiff, particularly in the event of an injury, but that isn’t necessarily the case. In the study, for instance, the empathy helped the accused rather than the crime victim, so it is likely that the empathy is going to apply to whomever is placed in the center of the story. From the jury’s perspective, that could be the civil defendant, depending on how the story is framed.

The second and broader implication is to think about the story itself. The research underscores the intuition that empathy is a product of projected experience: The more we are likely to, and able to, put ourselves into the shoes of another, the more we are motivated to appreciate that person’s situation. So while the ‘Golden Rule’ objection counsels to avoid explicit “How would you feel,” appeals, attorneys and advocates generally should recognize that this form of imagining is only human, and for some, probably inevitable. So remember that jurors are not just bringing their logic but also bringing a bit of themselves to the task.


Image credit: 123rf.com, used under license

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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