As the juror sits in the jury box hearing the case, she is not just rationally deciding who has the better position. She is also applying and maintaining her own self-concept. The implicit question she is asking herself is, "Am I the kind of person who would approve or condemn this?" or more basically projecting, "What would I have done if I had been in that position?" Judgment is bound up in morality, and morality in turn is bound up in self-concept. And given the centrality of that self-concept, applying those moral views isn't necessarily rational. In fact, based on recent research, moral views are applied in a way that is distinctly and systematically irrational. Bottom line: That juror likely believes that she is more moral than the average person, and that inflated moral view is going to color her judgment of others.
The study (Tappin & McKay, 2016) looked at perceived moral superiority, and the fact that "Most people strongly believe they are just, virtuous, and moral; yet regard the average person as distinctly less so." They asked a sample of 270 participants to rank themselves or the average person on 30 traits having to do with the core dimensions of agency, sociability, and morality. Because moral traits are viewed as durable and uniquely descriptive of the self, the hypothesis was that morality would not just be inflated as part of egocentrism, or what they call, "conventional self-enhancement," but would instead be a special case, and would be exaggerated above and beyond other positive but nonmoral traits. That is in fact what the researchers found, with virtually all participants irrationally inflating their own moral qualities above and beyond the inflation applied to other positive social traits like competence, ambition, and intelligence. The tendency of the average person to see themselves as "better than average," applies particularly to morality. This post will take a look at some of the interesting implications this finding carries for the moral judgments issued from the jury box.
Here are the implications I see:
Don't Rely on Self-Assessments or Self-Corrections:
Our current system for selecting juries is based on self-assessment of bias. When attorneys and judges ask various versions of "Can you be fair?" in screening potential jurors for cause, the assumption is that the individual possesses knowledge and control over their own capacities in that regard. But as I've written previously, self-diagnosis of bias is inherently flawed. It isn't just limited by a lack of complete knowledge about how we will react in the future, it is also systematically biased in a particular direction. If we generally believe we are more moral than others, that belief is likely to prompt us to say, "sure" when the court asks whether we can set aside our particular views and experiences and follow the instructions that the law and justice demand. In fact, the concept of "moral license" suggests that those who are most likely to ascribe a high morality to themselves, are also more likely to give themselves a pass when it seems desirable to stray from those principles.
Expect Idealism in Attributed Judgments:
An important principle of persuasion is that self-concept is not limited to self. Instead, people will project a version of themselves -- usually an idealized version of themselves -- in evaluating the actions of others. The scenarios that jurors hear in courtrooms are often perfect settings for jurors to project that "What Would I Have Done?" question. In evaluating whether defendants showed sufficient care or whether plaintiffs exercised the right levels of personal responsibility, jurors are bringing their own perceived morality to the task. If, as this research suggests, that perceived morality is grossly inflated, then the standard for both will be higher as well, and the "I would not have done that" reaction will be biased in the direction of what seems to be the more moral choices. Of course, the closer a party is to the jurors, the easier and more salient that judgment will be. That is a reason why moral judgment is likely to fall harder on individual plaintiffs, and also why it is generally a good idea to avoid accepting any perceived peers of your party as jurors.
Remember that Morality is Central:
Potentially the most interesting finding of this research is that morality is a special case. People are egocentric and will naturally exaggerate many of their own desirable qualities. But the fact that the moral exaggeration measured in this study outstripped the exaggeration of other traits, and the fact that it was unrelated to simple self-esteem means that moral views hold a central place in our worldviews. That finding underscores the advice to "make it moral," or to improve the persuasiveness of your position by framing it in ethical terms. Drawing on the morality of your argument serves to motivate listeners to believe that in agreeing with you they are also fulfilling their better perceptions of themselves. Tapping into the moral foundations of your case story means finding the ways that your position advances one or more of the commonly recognized principles of morality: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. After all, your average juror will see themselves as more committed to those principles than the average person.