How a Teen Court Jury was Influenced by Groupthink

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Groups are an interesting social phenomenon that consists of "two or more people who interact with and influence one another over a period of time, and who depend on one another and share common goals and a collective identity" (Franzio, 2006, p. G-3).  As such, we each become members of numerous groups throughout our lifetimes whereby some of these associations are voluntary while others are inescapable.  For instance, being a part of the high school volleyball team is a conscious choice made by an individual to join that particular sport.  On the other hand, being paired with your co-worker to devise a sales pitch for a new product at your company is a mandatory obligation that necessitates collaboration in order to complete the assignment.  Therefore, it is through these various combinations of groupings and organizations that people are consistently engaging with and affecting one another in achieving collective objectives. 

 

In fact, it was through one such personal experience that I began to grasp how intricate decision-making was for a group of just twelve people, a jury.  At the local high school in my hometown, we had a semester long program called Teen Court.  It was established to introduce students interested in law to how the legal system operated in relation to court proceedings as well as allow juvenile offenders an opportunity to be tried by their peers in front of a local attorney acting as judge instead of appearing before an actual judge.  The benefits for the juvenile taking part in Teen Court was that if they completed their sentence, which usually consisted of a small fine and community service, their offense would be taken off their record as if it never happened.  For the high school students that participated in Teen Court, they received course credit along with an education into the legal field.  Every student was given the opportunity to choose which role they were most interested in fulfilling in the courtroom be it a prosecutor, a defense attorney, or a bailiff with everyone having to rotate as jurors throughout the semester.  Of course, each role consisted of "a cluster of socially defined expectations that individuals in a given situation [were] expected to fulfill" (Franzio, 2006, p. 109).  So for example, the prosecutor's function was to present the incriminating evidence against the juvenile (i.e. the defendant) while the purpose of the defense was to present counter evidence that served as justification for the defendant's actions, a bailiff maintained order and flow in the courtroom while the jurors were responsible for deciding on the outcome of a case (i.e. the verdict also known as the sentence).  Therefore, roles were clearly defined and acceptance was quite high as each student could select their position within Teen Court.

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On one particular session of Teen Court, I was part of the jury that was comprised of twelve people that had to decide unanimously what the defendant's punishment was going to entail.  In this particular case, the defendant was a male student from the high school that had been caught by the police with drugs.  Personally, I thought that he should receive the strictest sentence we could impose which was 40 hours of community service.  However, many of my fellow jurors felt that was too harsh and believed that no more than 20 hours of community service was a more fitting punishment.  My reasoning for the full 40 hours of community service was that the defendant clearly stated in his defense when he was testifying that he knew that carrying and using drugs was wrong and still he chose to engage in such behavior.  Therefore, the defendant's conduct demonstrated a blatant disregard for the law.  On the other hand, many of the jurors were friends or acquaintances with the defendant and wanted to be lenient.  In addition, the sooner the jury decided on a verdict, the quicker we left court as we were only trying one case that evening and could possibly leave before 9:00pm, which is when we usually finished court.  Consequently, with the majority of students knowing the defendant, wanting to leave court early and having to come to a unanimous decision, it increased pressure to make a rushed decision.  In fact, during deliberation it become apparent that the jury was falling victim to groupthink in which "a process of flawed decision making [was occurring] as a result of strong pressures among group members to reach [an] agreement" (Coutts & Gruman, 2012, p. 238). 

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Not only were some jurors continually complaining about having to come to a general consensus over the hours of community service the defendant would be given, but they were also using nonverbal forms of communication to indicate their agitation and annoyance with the group by walking around stomping their feet as well as crossing their arms and glaring at the few of us that did not agree with them.  Due to these pressures, the few of us jury members that felt a harsher sentence was appropriate relinquished our original positions and gave into the majority as the defendant received only 10 hours of community service.  Indicating that group polarization had also taken place, as the initial stance of the majority of the jurors become even more extreme through the use of normative influence.  In which, coercion was used to bring about conformity in hopes of avoiding "negative social consequences such as being ostracized" by these jury members for the rest of the semester (Coutts, & Gruman, 2012, p. 239).  Thus, when a greater emphasis is placed on consensus seeking than effective analysis, groups are more prone to experience groupthink (Franzio, 2006).  Additionally, the fear of being rejected by the other jury members (i.e. normative influence) was highly persuasive in changing opinions to coincide with the group majority, which increases the likelihood of group polarization.  Therefore, this example provided an illustration of how normative influence can impact group polarization and how pressure to reach an agreement can lead to groupthink.

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Whereas our jury deliberation took less than half-an-hour to complete, it was still viewed by many of the jurors as lasting too long.  So while many people have the initiative notion that two heads are better than one, which then leads to the belief that group decision-making is superior to individual decisions.  Though the social psychological theory of groupthink provides reasoning as to why that is not always the case.  As stated by Coutts and Gruman (2012) "groups do not always make better decisions than individuals.  This is because groups can, for example, exert pressure on people to conform to bad ideas and exacerbate decision-making biases" (p. 238), which is exactly what transpired.  Therefore, people need to realize that groups are highly dynamic units susceptible to biases and less efficiency when certain antecedent conditions proposed by Janis (1983) are present, such as pressure (i.e. high stress) to make an unanimous decision in order for court to adjourn.  Sadly, this personal experience is not an anomaly in the legal arena, but a reality of many people that serve as jurors with an interesting article written by Lybrand, Dobson, and Solomon (n.d.) titled "Jury Think: The Social Psychology of Group Deliberation".  Thus, care should be taken when using groups to make decisions, as there are both benefits as well as limitations as evidenced by groupthink and group polarization. 

 

 

References

 

Coutts, L. M. & Gruman, J. A. (2012). Applying social psychology to organizations. In F. W. Schneider, J. A. Gruman, & L. M. Coutts (Eds.), Applied  Social Psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (pp. 113-133). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

 

Franzoi, S. L. (2006). Social Psychology. (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

 

Image source: Groupthink. Retrieved from http://www.orchardcommunications.ca/2011/12/31/groupthinks-growing-presence-in-social-media/

 

Image source: Teen court. Retrieved from http://youthservicebureau.com/

 

Image source: Jury of teenagers. Retrieved from http://www.noozhawk.com/article/062011_teen_court/

 

Janis, I. L. (1983). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes (2nd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

 

Lybrand, S., Dobson, J., & Solomon, S. H. (n.d.). Jury Think: The social psychology of group deliberation. Retrieved from http://www.doar.com/marketing/web/jurythink.pdf


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2 Comments

Jessica,

I agree that Groupthink can be very destructive to decision making, especially ones as important as sentencing. What if your court was a real court as in the reading you suggested? I am also curious if there was other reasons why the other jurors wanted only 10 hours of community service besides being the defendant's friends. Also, what kind of intervention program would you suggest to stop groupthink? Pratkanis & Turner (2006) suggests a model of goals to "improve decision quality" and "increase decision acceptance." I have included the link to the article below.

http://www.apa.org/about/gr/science/advocacy/2006/groupthink.pdf

Tony

Hi Tony,

Thank you for the article as the information was quite helpful, especially the suggestions of how to obtain the goals of improved decision quality and increased decision acceptance. I particularly liked the idea of increasing constructive conflict through the establishment of procedures for protecting minority opinion. If such a policy had existed when I was in Teen Court, I doubt that my experience would have been the same.

Unfortunately, the court was real in the sense that the defendant did have his record expunged after serving just 10 hours of community service instead of having a sentence more fitting to the crime. However, I understand what you mean by "real" court. Had the court been real as in the sense that you are referring to than the defendant would have gotten away with a light sentence and little incentive to deter him from future drug activity. All in all, justice was not served.

Besides the defendant being friends with many of the jurors, I suspected that many of the jurors wanted only 10 hours of community service in that they were operating by the in-group bias. As such, the in-group jurors may have trivialized the defendant's bad behavior as "the tendency [is] to give more favorable evaluation and greater rewards to in-group members than to out-group members"(Franzoi, 2006, p. 275), such as the jurors asking for the harsher sentence. Thus, it seemed that the jury was divided along the lines of an in-group (i.e. the majority) and an out-group (i.e. the minority).

Reference

Franzoi, S. L. (2006). Social Psychology. (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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