No Love for Jurors

Feb 22, 2023
Dr. Dennis Devine, Publications
Themevision Focus

Over 25 years of studying juries, I’ve noticed many people don’t think too highly of serving as a juror. They believe jury duty is a waste of time, something to be dodged by skipping outright or showing up and saying something outrageous to get booted. And many people would probably say jury decisions are influenced by all sorts of biases and often wrong.

Where does the negativity come from? Most of us have little or no experience actually serving on a jury, so some of it no doubt comes from what we see on a screen—movies, TV shows, and internet news headlines. Jury duty is portrayed as odious and the people who end up serving as jurors are often depicted in humorously derogatory ways in the entertainment domain. No regular person wants to be on a jury; anyone who does has an agenda or an axe to grind.

I once did an interview with a magazine devoted to “men’s” issues. I wanted to share some positives about juries and serving as a juror; the interviewer wanted a list of reliable ways to get out of jury duty. We talked at length and I managed to avoid offering a list of “sure outs” (which don’t exist anyway). When it was over, I thought maybe I had done my part to help change the stereotype about jury duty. The story never ran.

On-screen jurors are often cast as humans behaving badly in the jury room—distracted, preoccupied, wanting to be done. Even in that quintessential celebration of the American jury, 12 Angry Men, one thoughtful and determined juror had to work really hard to convince 11 other miscreants they were wrong and should change their vote.

Some of the negativity arises from a backlash associated with high-profile cases. There is no denying juries have reached verdicts that were just wrong—inconsistent with the evidence and/or the law. As with human judgment in other contexts, jury decisions are sometimes influenced by racism or other biases.

But social science research paints a fairly optimistic picture of the typical jury. Studies show juries are generally diligent and make a conscientious effort to perform their task. They do a good job of discussing the case and usually reach decisions consistent with the weight of the evidence. And those who serve as jurors tend to report a variety of positive outcomes—a sense of personal pride, heightened community engagement, and greater faith in democratic government.

Good to know, right, but none of that is helpful to an attorney dealing with a high-stakes case. Attorneys ideally want to know how ajury would decide their case if it gets that far. Unfortunately, we have essentially no opportunity to learn what the real jurors will think about a case before it is tried.

We can, however, study their close kin—mock jurors. These are people drawn from the community who we ask to step into the shoes of a juror and shed light on a specific case. I’ve interacted with lots of mock jurors; talking with them before, during, and after research studies is always interesting and informative.

What I have seen of mock jurors underscores the credibility of real jurors. Mock jurors quickly engage and take interest in their task—even complex and technical lawsuits. They enjoy unraveling the mysteries embedded in every case. They ask probing questions and want to know more than we can tell them. They articulate their views and stick by them, the way people naturally do when they care about something. I’ve seen mock jurors fill up a legal pad with case notes, spend 30 minutes on a 5-minute questionnaire, and even ask if they can stay late. Ultimately, mock jurors devote substantial time to discussing the right judgment knowing full well their eventual decisions will not be implemented.

If mock jurors do this in no-stakes situations, then what are actual jurors doing at trial when the consequences are so much greater?  

Mock jurors can offer many insights about a case. They are especially useful for sizing up the evidence, obtaining impressions of key witnesses, testing potential case narratives and themes, and gaining some sense of what a jury might award in damages. Along the way, mock jurors have a knack for summing up cases in pithy ways that are right on point. The jury system is not perfect, but juries arrive at plausible and defensible judgments most of the time. We should better appreciate jurors for their important service and the good job they typically do. We should also appreciate mock jurors for what they tell us about humans fulfilling the role of jurors—and what they can teach us about a particular case.  

Dennis Devine is an organizational psychologist and litigation consultant with ThemeVision LLC.
He is the author of Jury Decision Making: The State of Science (2012), a book that summarizes and integrates the scientific research on juries.