Commitment

Social psychologists often refer to the “3 Cs of Attitude Change”: conformity, consistency, and commitment. Previous posts have discussed the first two factors, conformity and consistency, and the current post will address the third factor, commitment. Commitment is the process by which people take a stand for or against a certain issue. Commitment to an attitude can be private or public, with private attitudes being more amenable to change than those expressed in a public forum. When someone is committed to a position, it usually means he/she has: made a public statement about the position; taken action consistent with the position; and is anchored to the position via membership in a group. Commitment has a strong impact on our actions, particularly when something to which we are committed is an important part of our reference group (the group to which we relate, belong, etc.). When applied to the interpretation of jury behavior, commitment is often the key to the decision process. For example, if a juror states during the voir dire process that he/she is a member of an environmental protection group, such as Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, and further, that membership in this environmental group is an important part of his/her life, it follows that this juror will deliberate about the case in ways that promote commitment to environmental causes. The mere act of stating, out loud, in a court of law, in front of the judge, attorneys, and other jurors, that one is committed to saving the earth has a powerful impact on this juror’s decision. If the lawsuit for which this juror has been selected pertains to an environmental issue, for example, destruction of sensitive wetlands by a multinational real estate conglomerate, the attorneys can be almost 100% certain this juror will reach a decision that ensures the real estate developer will pay big money for destroying the environment. In addition, because this juror can be expected to be a forceful presence within the confines of the jury room, the pressures for other jurors to conform will be strong. Overall, conformity, consistency, and commitment combine to create social pressures on individuals that are difficult to overcome in juries, as well as in other group settings.

Knowledge of the power of commitment is a powerful tool for attorneys. On the one hand, when someone makes a clear commitment to something which obviously is opposed to a lawyer’s position, such as Melissa’s environmental example, the choice is easy. Sometimes, however, a commitment to some belief or cause is more subtly “announced.” Being alert for subtleties is critical because the juror’s commitment may be equally strong as those which emerge more directly and thus, the subtle ones require the attorney to probe further about a point. So, lesson one for attorneys regarding commitment is: listen for commitments. Lesson 2 is: exploit them. If the commitment is in your favor, cross your fingers, and hope the other side didn’t recognize it during voir dire. If it is not in your favor, follow up. Pursue a line of questioning to ask about the strength of the belief or commitment. Such questioning can lead to a challenge for cause. Asking questions like, “you indicated you are involved in _____ (causes, activities, etc.); how likely are you to change your opinion about ____?” Getting the person to put themselves “in a corner” will allow you to move on to others who may be more favorable. Get them to commit, bring it out, and follow up! It is important to understand that, in jury selection, prospective jurors are placed in positions where social pressures are brought to the surface and will impact their performance as jurors. Questioning the venire members is not just an exercise in “getting the facts” – it is a dynamic process that goes beyond “sterile” information. The 3 C’s are key to understanding this. Being knowledgeable about, and wary of, commitments, as well as being skilled at exploiting them, are important tools in the litigator’s tool kit. Certainly jury selection is not the only place where this knowledge is important, depositions come to mind, and “working” with one’s own clients may also benefit from this knowledge, but is one of the most obvious in the realm of trial attorneys. Some of this is, perhaps, intuitive to attorneys, especially those with significant trial experience, however, the point of these posts is to explain some of the psychological science behind such concepts.

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