Secrets in the courtroom

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum
Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum

People over-value secret information, according to a series of studies reported in the New York Times reported earlier this year. Information designed as “classified” is treated as highly valuable precisely because it is secret.

When two groups in an experiment read the same government report—which was labeled “classified” for one group and “public” for the other—the results were stark: “people who thought the information was secret deemed it more useful, important and accurate than did those who thought it was public.” In other words, they applied a heuristic or psychological shortcut—in this case, the “secrecy heuristic.” Study participants were also more impressed by decisions based on secret information as opposed to freely available information.

Reports on these studies prompted some thoughts about listening, jurors, and the secrecy heuristic. Jurors are instructed to listen very carefully to what happens during trial. How, then, do jurors’ minds respond when attorneys object to evidence? The entire purpose of an objection is to prevent the jury from hearing something! (Or seeing it.) Within the flow of events in the courtroom, an objection stops everything.

At this point, the secrecy heuristic could come into play in several ways. If the objections are conducted in open court, the objection process emphatically flags for the jurors that there is something that one of the attorneys doesn’t want them to see or hear. They may be able to listen to the very evidence they will then be instructed to disregard, if it is ruled inadmissible.

If the objections are conducted in a bench conference, the same effect may apply. The theatrics of the courtroom could emphasize the secrecy if the attorneys approach the bench and speak in hushed voices about the “secret” evidence. A bench conference could trigger a double secrecy heuristic: the secrecy of the evidence itself, and the secrecy of the bench conference that they observe but cannot hear. (Or the  jurors may just tune out, regarding the conference as hyper-technical legal maneuverings.) 

Legal scholars such as Jeffrey Rachlinski of Cornell have written at length about heuristics within the legal context. For example, jurors do not appear to disregard information even if a judge asks them to disregard it. If one party asks for a certain amount in damages but the judge instructs the jury not to consider the amount, that amount still serves as an “anchor.” The anchor exerts influence regardless of the instruction to disregard it, pulling the award toward  the anchor for groups exposed to it. Groups with no anchor return very different damage awards. Professor Rachlinski has also written with Judge Andrew Wistrich and Chris Guthrie of Vanderbilt about whether judges can ignore inadmissible evidence that they hear; the answer appears to be “no.”

Under the concept of the secrecy heuristic, it seems possible that judges and jurors who hear inadmissible information and are instructed to disregard it may not only *not* disregard it but actually give it more weight. Jurors who know something is being kept from them may assign more weight to the gap in their knowledge. (If the word “insurance” arises at trial and then is hushed over by an objection, jurors might spend time in deliberations discussing whether to reduce a plaintiff’s award based on the likelihood of coverage. The role of insurance might seem even more important because they are not supposed to hear about it.)

The scholarship does not use the term “secrecy heuristic” in describing this effect but bears it out in different words: In the article on judges and limiting instructions, Wistrich, Guthrie, and Rachlinski cite practical advice from Keeton’s Trial Tactics and Methods: asking the judge to instruct the jury to disregard evidence “calls to the jury’s attention the relevance of the evidence to the very issue on which you are seeking to avoid their considering it.” They also cite a 2001 articleJury Decision Making: 45 Years of Empirical Research on Deliberating Groups, which found that limiting instructions are “associated with a paradoxical increase in the targeted behavior.”

The secrecy heuristic would help to explain the psychology of this paradox. When you instruct someone to listen carefully, but then to disregard certain information, the whole process is likely to reinforce their memory of that information and their assessment of just how important and valuable it really is.

Many thanks to Jeff Rachlinski of Cornell, and Julie Seaman and Paul Zwier of Emory for feedback on an earlier version of this post. For more background on cognitive heuristics and listening, here is an earlier series from Listen Like a Lawyer exploring cognitive biases and listening in the legal context.

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