Social desirability

Social desirability has important implications in jury selection. Social desirability refers to the phenomenon of saying or doing something because “everybody else” does. For example, when an attorney or a judge asks a prospective juror whether he/she can put aside all biases, predisposed beliefs, and personal feelings and instead, be an impartial judge of the facts of the case being tried based on the law and the evidence, the socially desirable answer is “Yes.” Few among us want other people to believe or know, with certainty, that we are biased, have already made up our minds about the defendant’s guilt or negligence, and are closed minded to the point that we will never listen to anything anyone says about the case. In addition, the power differential between a prospective juror and an attorney, not to mention a judge sitting up high in an imposing black robe, gavel in hand, is extreme to the point that it is intimidating to admit that one cannot be fair and impartial. Nonetheless, many attorneys persist in asking this, or similar, questions during voir dire, in an effort to select good jurors for their case. The expectations derived from the formal setting inside the courtroom make it difficult to determine whether a prospective juror is answering the attorneys’ and judge’s questions truthfully, to the best of his/her ability, or in the most socially desirable manner. (This post will not address the other type of juror, that is, the awful people who say anything they can merely to be excused from jury duty. Don’t get me started talking about them.) Preparing the right voir dire questions, then asking them in a skilled manner designed to assess the prospective jurors’ true attitudes, values, and beliefs, is a skill that must be finely honed in order to maximize one’s chances for success at trial.

Answering a question in a socially desirable way implies there is a “right” or expected answer, to some degree.  In the basic courtroom questioning of prospective jurors as to whether they “can be fair,” it is pretty obvious that one is not expected to say “no”.  Being fair is a fundamental trait that most people believe they possess.  It is only with probing that one extracts honest assessments of fairness, usually under certain conditions.  Failing to recognize, or accept, that it is difficult for people to answer honestly, in an open, public, environment – a courtroom – where there are powerful people – lawyers, a judge, a bailiff with a gun – could result in a false sense that the voir dire process was fair to all.  But, the socially desirable answer issue is at work in many other places.  A job interview, for example, is ripe for a conflict between what is honest, and what is thought by the applicant to be the right answer.  Similarly, we have experienced it when asking an employee if he/she has completed an assigned task.  “Yes” is the socially desirable answer, many would think, and it is, except when it is not the true answer.  As an employer, getting the true, but less desirable, answer in that situation – i.e., “No” is preferable than to operate on a false expectation that the task was completed.  In life, in the work place, and certainly, in the courtroom, it is much better to be aware that social desirability is at work and probe, give the person room to answer, without pressure, even if they answer in a way contrary to what you would like to hear.  And reward, by thanking the person for their honesty, rather than punishing them by scolding in ways that make future answers even less truthful.

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