The Advantage Blog
“So, who wants to be the foreperson?”: Opinion leaders in jury deliberationsMay 13, 2017 | By Alexis Knutson | Jury Behavior, Jury Selection
If the cast of Saved by the Bell had jury duty, Zach Morris (The Adult Years) would be a likely candidate for jury foreperson. Personable, popular, and persuasive, the other jurors would look to him for his opinions and interpretation of the case. If you’re not familiar with the show, Zach was the typical “popular guy” inserted into any television show. He wasn’t afraid to speak-up in class (even if he didn’t always have the right answer), he was confident, and he was charismatic. And although he wasn’t the brightest student at Bayside High, based on his personality, his career since has surely landed him in a high-paying and well-respected position.
As we often see in jury deliberations in mock trials and find during post-trial juror interviews, the most likely candidate for foreperson is the stereotypical individual one would expect others to look to in terms of the established social hierarchy. And the research supports this, too. Statistically, the people who are elected or who volunteer to act as foreperson are highly educated, older males, of high socioeconomic status. Research tells us the foreperson is also more likely to sit at the head of the table, giving the nonverbal cue they are a leader based on their position in the room. Not surprisingly, this person is also more likely to be the first to speak (perhaps asking, “Who wants to be the foreperson?”) and thus making themselves a likely candidate for organizing the group going forward.
But what’s more important than identifying the likely foreperson is identifying the likely opinion leader of the group. Often these two categories overlap, but not always. (Sometimes the foreperson role is seen as more administrative, thus avoided by the leaders who will truly influence the group.) Trying to identify the likely leader of the group is not easy, and clearly often not possible to predict with certainty. However, there are certain traits that these types possess. Opinion leaders are well-respected, knowledgeable, and personable, and they have the ability to influence the opinions of others using these skills. When a person exhibits strong leadership traits, they have the potential to be problematic in deliberations. Sure, if they side with your version of the case, you want them on the jury. But if they oppose your side, they can lead the charge for your opponent. The concern is that they are just too risky to leave on the panel.
During jury selection, we aim to identify the opinion leaders in the pool. Here are some common traits to look for:
- Speaks Often and for Long Periods of Time – These people have opinions and aren’t afraid to share them. They usually out themselves very early in the day in mock trials, asking clarifying questions, chatting it up with their neighbors, and voicing their thoughts and opinions about the mock trial process. Once deliberations start, these people hold the room, giving extended examples and elaborating on their thoughts. Sometimes all this talking turns others in the group off, and they start to ignore said individual. But if the talker has trait #2 below, they could start to persuade others of their views of the case. Take note of those who raise their hands and have an answer to all of your voir dire questions. It’s great they’re participating, but could be risky behind closed doors.
- Is Articulate and (at least seemingly) Intelligent – These jurors have clearly organized thoughts and are able to explain them to others. In our most complex cases, whether or not the opinion leader is the brightest individual can be irrelevant. We often see others agreeing with their well-articulated arguments because they at least give the illusion of understanding. Keep an eye on those who have these traits in addition to trait #1 above. They have the ability to control deliberations in unpredictable ways.
- Appears Self-Assured and Confident – This type of person is unshaken by speaking in front of a group. As with Zach Morris, they exude confidence in situations where others shy away. This has the potential to be particularly influential in the foreign environment of jury deliberations, where most have very little (if any) experience. Again, this becomes evident as this potential juror holds the room in jury selection, willing to speak and engage with you in front of a large group of strangers.
- Are Leaders in Other Arenas – If they’re the head of the PTA, chair of a board, and President of their business, chances are they have the leadership qualities to sway a jury. In voir dire, ask the pool what areas of their personal lives they hold leadership positions, and listen for those who have a run-on list.
Opinion leaders can be risky to leave on the jury. With their ability to persuade, they could singlehandedly influence the group in favor of the other side. So unless you’re confident Zach will be on your side, it’s better to let him go.
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