Public Behavior and Compliance: Evidence from Jury Duty

I was summoned for jury duty today, something that’s never happened to me before. Juries are interesting to social scientists because–at least at the summons stage–they are the closest thing that you get to a random sample of the people who live in your community. Jury duty in Tompkins County gave me a good snapshot of my fellow Tompkins County residents. 60 of us showed up. Out of those 60, they picked 14 at random for voir dire (this didn’t include me). Of those 14,

  • 13 were Caucasian
  • 1 was unemployed
  • 1 was a college professor (assistant prof at Ithaca College)
  • 5 lived in Ithaca, 2 lived in Newfield, 2 in T-burg
  • 7 were men
  • 8 were obviously liberal/progressive/etc.
  • 1 was obviously conservative

So it sounds about right. But what interested me about this was a little natural experiment that I was able to observe about public behavior and social compliance among this nice random sample of jurors.

So, some background. First off, let’s recognize that almost everyone wants to get out of jury duty. This was clear from the very beginning: in New York State, the first thing that happens when the jury pool shows up is the judge describes the case in a sentence or so (in our case, “Plaintiff X is suing defendant Y for negligence in eye surgery.” That’s literally all we heard). Then, the potential jurors are given the opportunity to come speak privately to the judge about why they believe that they should be excused from jury duty based on the identity of the plaintiff and defendant and the nature of the case. Well, when the judge announced this, I’d say that 55/60 people got in line to get off of jury duty. (Again, this did not include me.)

Clearly, people just didn’t want to serve on the jury. And it turns out that due to the acoustics of the place, everyone could hear the private conversations between the jury pool and the judge. Things like “I have glasses so I couldn’t rule fairly on this case” or “my son has a soccer game next week and I don’t want to miss it.” Basically, the lamest excuses that you could imagine. To his credit, the judge only excused two candidates, both of whom were current patients of the doctor who were scheduled for eye surgery.

What I conclude from this is that people want to get out of jury duty and they will offer incredibly tendentious excuses if they think that will work.

So then, the clerk randomly chose 14 of the 60 of us for voir dire. What this meant is that all of us had to sit there while the two lawyers grilled these 14 for four hours. These questions went pretty deep. And critically, the questions and the responses were public, and very focused on each potential juror. So the lawyer would ask, “do you believe that a plaintiff has a right to a jury trial?” and “could you put own personal experiences aside to judge this case fairly?” Of the 14 potential jurors chosen, and the hundreds of questions put to them, every answer was what I would call “socially compliant,” by which I mean the juror responded in a way that made him or her seem fair, impartial, and competent. Not a single potential juror admitted, for example, that his or her family’s history of difficult relations with doctors would cloud his or her judgment.

So, we have the observation that the same people who five minutes previously had tried their best to get out of jury duty were adamant that they would be completely fair and impartial jurors, even though even the slightest hint of partiality or bias would get them dismissed–excusing them from jury duty–immediately.

It’s costless to tell a lawyer that you might not be completely impartial, and in fact it would be beneficial to do so if the goal is to get out of jury duty! We know that nearly all of these folks wanted out of jury duty. Yet when asked publicly if they were able to abide by the rules of the court, not one was willing to say that s/he could not, despite the obvious incentives to do so.

(Full disclosure, I would have told the lawyers that I would have a tough time ruling in favor of a plaintiff in a malpractice suit given how much I talk about medical malpractice with my doctor in-laws.)

So what’s the difference? I think that the reason why potential jurors were so willing to offer bogus excuses to get out of jury duty to the judge was that doing so was private, and faced no implicit social sanction. When given the same opportunity in front of their peers and when questioned by an authority figure, they would not do so. This resonates, I think, with a long line of research that shows that people will do lots of pretty shady things when they think that no one is listening or watching, but that they are remarkably compliant to instructions when they fear some sort of sanction from their peers and/or an authority figure.

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