Monday 26 September 2011

Juries and Stories

Although the paper on which it is based is rather old now, the idea that the real task of jurors in criminal trials is to compose a story is so good that I thought it would be worth passing on to readers of OnFiction.

Nancy Pennington and Reid Hastie proposed in 1988 that jurors are faced with a sequence of evidence, one witness at a time, and from this rather unhelpfully ordered set of observations, each constructs a narrative account of what went on in the events that led to the trial. Pennington and Hastie did two experiments. They took a real trial in which a man called Johnson killed a man called Caldwell, and derived from it a set of 119 statements which started like this.
1 The first witness is a police officer: Sergeant Robert Harris
2 I was on my usual foot patrol at 9:00 p.m.
3 I heard loud voices from the direction of Gleason's Bar
4 Johnson and Caldwell were outside the bar
5 Johnson laughed at Caldwell
Some of these items were elements in the defense story—the overall theme of which was not guilty by reason of self defense. Some were elements in the prosecution story—guilty of murder. Other statements were elements of both defense and prosecution stories, and yet others were elements in neither.

In their first experiment, after participants had read the evidence-statements, and rendered a verdict, they were given a memory test, which they were not expecting. As compared with those who rendered a not-guilty verdict, those who rendered a guilty verdict remembered more of the original 119 items that were elements of the prosecution story, and also claimed to remember more items that were not actually among the original 119 items but were inferences from the prosecution story. In the same way those who rendered a not-guilty verdict remembered more of the 119 items from that story and more new items that were inferences from it.

In their second experiment Pennington and Hastie varied order of presentation. In one order the statements came in a sequence consistent with the prosecution story, and in another order the sequence was consistent with the defense story. Pennington and Hastie also constructed two sets of statements in orders of statements given, one witness at a time, that were close to the orders of the original trial. Participants were most likely to render a verdict of guilty when prosecution statements were in the order of the prosecution story and defense evidence came in the order of witnesses (78%) and least likely to render a guilty verdict when defense evidence was in the order of the defense story and prosecution evidence was not (31%). People were most confident of their verdict when they heard the evidence in story order.

Bruner (1986) has argued that narrative is a mode of thinking about agents and their intentions, and how these intentions meet vicissitudes. Court cases—actual and in court-room dramas—have people constructing their own version of the story, to make a series of events that they learn about in somewhat haphazard order into a narrative with a causal structure. Only in a story-structure can it be understood what someone did to whom, with what intentions, and what effects. Stories organize our explanations and understandings of the social world. In a court, only the story agreed by the jury has a proper ending.

Stories have these effects not just in court cases but in day-to-day life.

Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pennington, N., & Hastie, R. (1988). Explanation-based decision making: Effects of memory structure on judgment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 14, 521-533.

Image: Jury box in an American court room, Wikipedia.

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