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Is Too Much Experience a Bad Thing? How Your Expertise May Lead You to Inaccurately Predict Jurors’ Reactions to the Case

We’ve all been there.  You’re at a cocktail party and someone is telling a joke that you’ve heard a number of times before.  While that joke was laugh-out-loud hilarious the first time you heard it, it’s just not as side-splitting after about the tenth run.  On top of that, you can’t imagine why others would be amused by it (you have lost empathy for how they will perceive the joke).  Interestingly, as the scholars of a recently published article on desensitization bias in emotional perspective taking[1] would point out, it’s not just that you, as the repeated consumer of the joke, have become desensitized to the punch line.  You have inoculated yourself against the experience of having heard it for the first time and, for that reason, have a hard time understanding why anyone else would find the joke so funny.  By the conclusion of this issue of Insights, you will understand this bias and how it can work against you as you prepare for trial.


How Desensitization Bias Works

As social beings, humans rely upon their sense of empathy to help them relate to others in the world.  As such, when you are trying to understand where someone else is coming from, or how they might react to an experience, you probably begin by asking yourself how you would feel or react if put in a similar situation.  In fact, this sentiment is echoed all the time in the expression, “I know just how you feel.”  In their article, “Too much experience: A desensitization bias in emotional perspective taking,” researchers designed five experiments to test whether or not repeated exposure to an emotional experience would lead to a desensitization bias and inherently affect a person’s ability to predict how relevant others might react to that same experience. The researchers tested their desensitization hypothesis under five separate conditions whereby participants engaged in experiments testing their reactions to risky behaviors (e.g., motorcycle stunts), shocking images, jokes, annoyances and assumptions of expert advice.  The studies revealed that “repeated exposure to emotional experiences leads people to become desensitized; [as a result], they tend to believe that others would also respond less intensely – even when thinking about other people who are experiencing the event for the first time.”  Our ability to empathize with other novice consumers is susceptible to a boomerang effect moderated by experience.  In other words, over-experience might be a bad thing when it comes to our ability to predict how others will react and it could lead to serious errors in judgment.

How Desensitization Bias Affects Your Case

Our clients often tell us that one of the most important takeaways from conducting pre-trial jury research are the valuable insights jurors provide as first-time consumers of the evidence and case narrative.  After working on a specific case for a number of months, or even years, it often becomes exceedingly difficult to see the forest through the trees.  More than that, it is extraordinarily challenging to look at the case with a fresh set of eyes and try to put yourself in the shoes of those who are hearing it for the first time.  In fact, as outlined above, the researchers of this study would argue that it is nearly impossible to do so because of the desensitization bias that occurs after so much experience and exposure.  While your expertise is certainly warranted, it could mean that you fail to make important connections or interpretations that jurors, as first-time consumers, will make.  Moreover, these errors in judgement could lead to unfortunate outcomes for your case.

How Pre-Trial Research Can Help

It is essential to, when possible, present your arguments and evidence to others who have not yet had a similar level of exposure.  Seeking feedback about a case from others is an important step to ensure you are not drinking your own Kool-Aid.  By conducing pre-trial jury research in the form of a focus group or mock trial, you may help to minimize errors in judgment caused by desensitization bias.  The fresh perspective provided by mock jurors will assist the trial team in understanding where certain gaps in the narrative lie.  Indeed, mock jurors are often persuaded by a piece of evidence that the trial team has passed off as unimportant because of their overexposure and subsequent desensitization to it.  The trial team can then use this information to fill in those gaps and, subsequently, improve their case by helping jurors reach the conclusion needed during actual trial.  Very few would disagree with the notion that it is always better to find out how relevant others will react to arguments and evidence before trial, rather than during trial.  As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.



[1] Campbell, T., O’Brien, E., Van Boven, L., Schwarz, N., & Ubel, P. (2014). Too much experience: A desensitization bias in emotional perspective taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 272.

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