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The Limitations of Online Jury Research for Mock Trial Projects

(Part 2 of a 2 Part Series)

As discussed in Part I of this series, the ultimate goal of sound jury research is to provide clients with juror feedback on their themes, arguments, witnesses and, when desired, a range of damages that could be expected at trial and the rationale behind jurors’ reactions to damages arguments. However, as with all jury research (online or traditional), there are tradeoffs when designing a test. For verdict-driven tests, the limitations associated with online jury research can make for problematic results.

Limitations of Online Jury Research for Mock Trial Projects

  • Online Disinhibition Effect. Most importantly, the computer-mediated format of online jury research can result in negative effects on personal interaction that face-to-face interactions do not present. One of the most studied effects is the phenomenon that researchers have dubbed the “Online Disinhibition Effect.” This refers to the differences in how people communicate online versus face-to-face.

online-jury-research-mock-trial-limitationsOne of the hallmarks of online interaction is its anonymous nature. When communication is anonymous and mediated through the computer, it tends to be very different from face-to-face communication. People say things anonymously that they would never say if they were speaking to someone in person. This can result in an inaccurate view of jurors’ interactions.

  • Loss of Important Non-Verbal Cues. Next, interacting face-to-face is very different than interacting through a computer. In a face-to-face interaction, participants are able to use gestures, facial expressions, vocal inflections and other forms of nonverbal communication. This is all lost in the virtual context. This loss undermines your research because it does not replicate what actual jurors experience. This is an important caveat to consider because, if the conditions of an actual jury are not replicated, the research is undermined and its results are compromised.
  • Loss of Group Dynamics. Online interaction also undermines and gives an inaccurate picture of group dynamics. For example, when a group discussion is conducted online, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see factions form among jurors. Moreover, it becomes exceedingly cumbersome to clearly understand how ideas are discussed and ultimately accepted or rejected by the group. People in groups like juries who interact face-to-face naturally adopt different roles (i.e. leader, mediator, etc.). When the interaction is computer-mediated, role adoption is limited and harder to observe.

While our clients have told us that cost and speed of implementing an online mock trial or focus group are two of the top advantages, the disadvantages can limit the usefulness or generalizability of the results to the real-world trial setting. If the results aren’t reliable, then faulty decisions may be made that can have a significant impact on trial strategy and on the direction of your litigation. These limitations tend not to be as important in an inductive focus group design, as discussed in Part I of this series.


By: John Wilinski, M.A. – Consultant 

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