Articles From the Team

Group Thinking and Juries

So, I've been reading a few pop psychology books recently, it makes a change from novels, they're easy to read and there's usually something in them that you feel might come in vaguely useful in life (never stop learning!)

There was a section in Richard Wiseman's popular book '59 Seconds' that had me thinking. It was about group thinking and decision making. The section was in fact about decision making in the workplace and the seemingly sensible practice of bringing together a group of well-informed and intelligent colleagues when an important decision needs to be made.

However, many highly regarded social psychologists over the years have in fact shown through experimental studies that 'groupthink' doesn't actually lead to rational sensible balanced decisions being made but, rather, far more polarised and often risky decisions than the individuals in the group would have made by themselves.

In short, being in a group exaggerates people's opinions, causing them to make a more extreme decision than they would on their own.

Obviously in the wrong situation this can have worrying consequences. Let a group of aggressive teenagers hang out together and they're more likely to act violently or bring together a group of adventurous businessmen and they're more likely to make a reckless investment decision. You only have to follow a few internet threads on emotive subjects to see just how fast the extreme views come to the fore with a bit of encouragement from someone with a similar view (obviously anonymity comes into play too which doesn’t help matters)

More than anything else, it made me think of juries though. We've probably all seen the classic 12 Angry Men and watched as Henry Fonda's 'voice of reason' character slowly turns the other jurors away from a knee-jerk guilty verdict that would have seen a boy hang. Just how often does that really happen though and if ‘groupthink’ leads to more risky and polarised decisions, is having 12 people sitting in a room discussing that kind of important decision really the right way to go?

I wondered if it might be better if they all sat in different rooms (juror booths??) and weren’t able to speak to each other? That way they could come to their own, less polarised and more rational, decision based on the facts. Perhaps if they weren’t sure on a point, they could ask the judge for clarification.

But that would lead to far more hung juries wouldn’t it, and that would be an obstruction to justice, so no-can-do.

Perhaps in that case, we should go the way of Scotland and have juries of 15 who are only expected to produce a simple majority? Pop them all in separate booths to mull it over and then see what comes out in the wash…

Just an idea anyway.

For more information contact Juliet Lawson at BCL Legal.

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