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The Jelly Bean theory of keeping jurors' attention

ImageWhen you need jurors to understand new and complicated facts or concepts, you have a problem: you need to repeat the material more than once, but when you do, you're punished for it. A new and seemingly unrelated study suggests a path between the rock and the hard place.

The dilemma is clear. On the one hand, you know you can't just have a witness recite the material once and consider it learned. Most people, no matter how smart, learn much more easily when the material is repeated. On the other hand, jurors think they hate repetition, and judges know they do. Present the same fact or concept a second time and you'll typically be met with a quick sustained objection or a jury box full of people shifting in their seats and rolling their eyes.

Enter the jelly bean.

Cherry, orange, strawberry, peach, and tangerine

I've been off line for a little while, and I'd prefer you not ask why one of the first news stories I opened on my return was a news release titled "Trying to stay on a strict diet? Focus on the details." It's January, after all. But the story turned out to be relevant to more than my New Year's resolutions.

The researchers gave subjects jelly beans. Twenty-two jelly beans each, in five flavors: cherry, orange, strawberry, peach, and tangerine. (Why twenty-two and not, say, twenty-seven? The press release doesn't say, and I don't have the whole article.) The research subjects had the grueling job of eating the jelly beans and rating how much they enjoyed this jelly-bean-eating thing. When it was over, they had to answer more questions: "how well they could distinguish the flavors, how much they noticed the different flavors, how repetitive the eating task felt, how similar the jelly beans seemed to each other, and how much variety they perceived."

The subjects were in two groups, and the two groups heard different words about what they were eating. One group was asked only to eat the "jelly beans." The other group was asked to eat "cherry jelly beans," "tangerine jelly beans," and so on. And that difference — an extra word articulating the obvious fact that the beans were not exactly the same — changed the subjects' experience. The folks who were offered another "peach jelly bean," then "strawberry," had a great time, enjoying every bean and ready for more when the 22-bean ration was gone. But the poor subjects who were offered "jelly bean" after "jelly bean" got bored and didn't want more.

Cognitive as well as sensory

The amazing thing about this, of course, is that there was no difference in what these people were actually eating. The ones who thought they had savored a delicious variety had the same pile of jelly beans as the ones who thought they had endured a tedious sugary ordeal.

The paper's author, Joseph P. Redden of the University of Minnesota, says the magic isn't limited to food: "Subcategorization [that's the "tangerine" label] reduced satiation for experiences that were more cognitive (e.g., studying) as well as more sensory (e.g., eating snacks)." And he suggests there may be many uses for this lesson.

Subcategorization should be useful "when facing limited options, developing expertise, or following a repetitive regimen," he says.

Or when sitting through a trial. In presenting repetitive material, there is almost always a way to group it into segments that are different from each other, and to describe the differences briefly to the jury. Any good teacher can tell you how to do it — or, if the teacher is your expert witness, do it for you. Jurors think in segments anyway, so the simple act of dividing the material up will help them absorb it. If you label the segments too, they might even start looking forward to the parts of the trial where you're the one standing up.

The paper is Joseph P. Redden, "Reducing Satiation: The Role of Categorization Level," in the February 2008 Journal of Consumer Research. I'm not aware of an free copy on line, but the press release is here.

One comment

  1. marketinginstitute

    The paper, “Reducing Satiation: The Role of Categorization Level,” can be found here (it’s the second article listed – clicking on the name opens the PDF of the paper):


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