Most people perceive themselves as acting consistently across time and situations. Not only do most people like to appear consistent, in order to manage others’ impressions of them, they also like to appear consistent to themselves. This desire for consistency has strong effects on people’s behavior, particularly in group situations. Consistency has implications for people’s behavior when they on a jury, as well as in many other contexts. For example, during the voir dire process, in which prospective jurors are questioned by the judge and attorneys about their suitability to decide the case, their answers are provided in accordance with their views about the world, the case, etc. The jurors’ answers to the questions provide a basis for the judge and the attorneys to decide whether a particular person would be a good juror for the case or whether he/she would be better suited for a different case. Due to most people’s desire for consistency, the judge and attorneys realize, intuitively or because they understand this social psychological principle, that the prospective jurors’ attitudes, as expressed in their answers to the voir dire questions, are the same attitudes that will guide their decisions during the deliberations process, resulting in a verdict favoring one side of the case but not the other. That is, if a prospective juror indicated a fondness for physicians, believing a physician saved her life, it is likely this juror will give the benefit of the doubt to the physician who is a defendant in a medical malpractice case, believing the physician never intended to hurt the patient who is the plaintiff in the case. Whether the attorney represents the patient who is claiming an injury by the physician or the physician who is defending the claim is, of course, the primary factor in how this juror’s attitude will be interpreted. The important thing to know about consistency is that most people strive for it because being inconsistent in thinking or feeling about the world is undesirable. Think about it: No one wants to be known as “wishy washy.” Consistency, when combined with conformity, leads people to make decisions in a certain way, while avoiding other, perhaps equally viable, alternatives.
Because I’ve heard Melissa conducing educational programs on jury selection, I want to comment on one way the knowledge of the human desire to appear consistent is of importance to trial lawyers. In the chess game of jury selection, where the options are pre emptory strike (limited numbers), challenge for cause (no limits), or accept, human consistency can be used to build challenges for cause. When a potential juror answers in a way that is contrary to the lawyer’s position – they don’t fit the profile of desirables – understanding that additional questions on the topic will back them into a corner is helpful. So, box them in and get them to say enough to convince the judge that the person is not able to be “fair” to your client. The attorney must be quick on his/her feet to recognize that one “bad” answer will probably lead to others because that person will not want to appear to provide answers inconsistent to prior statements. This is something lawyers often do intuitively, without realizing the reason the technique is working. And, if the juror is answering in ways that are inconsistent, pointing out that their answers are inconsistent is a much more polite tactic than to suggest they are lying. The same is true of witnesses. They, of course, must remain consistent to be credible. If they are not, and if one does not want to alienate the witness (something that may not always be the case) pointing out answers that don’t “jive” may give the witness a way to clarify the point by providing a way to save face instead of any challenge to the witness that would seem to insinuate an accusation that the witness is lying. Understanding that most people in western cultures want to appear consistent can be useful in these, and perhaps other, ways to trial lawyers.