When people laugh together, they're willing to disclose more to each other. A recent post in Psyblog highlights a study (Gray, Parkinson, & Dunbar, 2015) in which groups of strangers sat together to watch a video documentary, a boring clip about golf, or a comedian. Those who watched the comedian were more likely to share a laugh, and those who laughed together were more likely to self-disclose in a subsequent phase of the study. The authors concluded, "The results show that disclosed intimacy is significantly higher after laughter than in the control condition." Interestingly, however, the research participants did not believe they were sharing more due to to the shared laugh, but they were. "People in the study were more likely to disclose something personal about themselves after laughing together, although they didn’t realize it." The reason for this is that laughter triggers the release of positive hormones, endorphins, which play a role in forming the social bonds that facilitate intimacy. That makes sense, since scientists believe that smiles and laughter evolved as submissive gestures aimed at increasing attraction and decreasing perceptions of threat.
Voir dire is one setting where you definitely want the panelists to feel a reduced perception of threat and a willingness to engage in greater self-disclosure. If they aren't comfortable, they're less likely to admit to biases and other attitudes you want to learn about through questioning. That suggests that a shared laugh between counsel and potential jurors is just the ticket for breaking the ice and promoting greater disclosure. But it is tricky. When the venire members first enter the courtroom, they are likely awed by the formal setting, and when they first hear what the case is about, they are likely to see it as a serious matter. Add to that the fact that most attorneys are not natural comedians and there is every chance that your planned joke will fall flat and you'll end up looking a little desperate at the very time that you need to establish credibility with your future jurors. So that is the dilemma. "No jokes" is a good rule of thumb to apply, but that shouldn't prevent you from taking advantage of humor that presents itself in the situation or emerges from the panelists themselves. I believe that there are still a few things you can do to safely share an icebreaking laugh with the panel of potential jurors during voir dire.
One, Don't Be So Formal
Based on the setting, those who show up for jury duty are likely to believe that they are stepping into a formal procedure where citizens declare their impartiality before the bar. Saying that you can be fair can carry the tone of taking the oath itself. To avoid that feeling of formal ritual, the lawyer conducting oral voir dire needs to help the panelists understand it as a conversation. They need to show that the whole point of voir dire is for the panel to honestly share their experiences and their views. Attorneys can sometimes prime the pump on that process by sharing some of their own views. E.g., "If this were a case on the Patriots football controversy, then I wouldn't be the right juror for the case because -- and I'm going to apologize in advance to any Patriots fans -- I really hate Tom Brady."
Two, Warm Up a Topic Before Asking Challenging Questions on It
Ask open-ended questions. The question, "Who here could not be fair to a corporation?" will never lead to as much disclosure as the question, "What do you think about big companies?" The open-ended version avoids leading, but also provides an opportunity for some lighter moments. Sometimes it helps to ask a question where you really don't care what the answer is. "How many of you have had recent dealings with a big business? Was it on hold on a 1-800 customer service call? How many of you listened to more than a few minutes of light jazz as part of that experience?" Even if jurors' responses don't come with a chuckle, you are still breaking the ice and getting them thinking about the topic.
Then Three, Let the Humor Come from the Jury Box
Probably the best opportunities for humor will come from the potential jurors themselves. They're under a bit of stress, but they're all in this together, and typically in a group voir dire setting, there will be one or two who are willing to break the ice. For example, when a potential juror is asked whether their workplace could get along without them for a couple of weeks, I've heard a few different versions of the answer, "Yes...but I don't want them to know that." Because they're peers in this situation, the potential jurors are more likely to laugh with each other than they are to laugh with you. But if a joke or a moment of humor does make its way through the stress and the seriousness of the situation, be sure to laugh along with them. They'll trust you more for it, and they will disclose more in response.