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Newsflash: Juries Make Decisions Based on Emotion

By December 12, 2008Business

J0399682Something we always suspected now has some scientific research backing it.  According to today's National Law Journal, science is now helping us understand how juries make decisions in crime and punishment. The articles states that:

"Researchers from Vanderbilt University used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to chart brain activity as subjects were asked to determine issues of guilt, innocence and punishment in a range of circumstances. It was the first time researchers have actually watched the brain at work as people made legal decisions, said Owen Jones, a professor of law and biology at Vanderbilt and one of the study's authors. The study is released in this month's issue of the journal, Neuron.

The research showed that different parts of the brain were triggered when subjects were asked to determine guilt or innocence, as opposed to when they were asked to determine a level of punishment. The analytical part of the brain — called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — was active when subjects were asked to decide whether or not people deserved to be punished. But the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions was triggered when people were asked to decide the level of punishment deserved in the scenarios.

The research doesn't necessarily mean that emotions drive decisions on punishment, but they do "raise the possibility that emotional responses to criminal acts may represent a gauge for assessing deserved punishment."

Researchers also found similarities between how the brain processes punishments for third parties — such as criminals on trial — and how the brain processes unfair behavior that directly affects the individual. Further, it doesn't seem to matter whether you were the victim or watching a third party, your emotions are a part of the legal-making decision.

What does this mean to paralegals involved in trial?  Sharpen up those observation skills.  Make sure that your attorney's trial performance is convincing.  Don't be afraid to critique his or her performance in the courtroom as you watch the jury.  If you see that they are unmoved by your attorney's arguments, let him/her know.  According to this research, people make decisions the same way for both second-party and third-party punishment matters which is particularly interesting given that the U.S. judicial system is supposed to be an impartial, third-party system.