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When They Don't See What You See

A recent study highlights what might be the most important thing lawyers and clients miss about how juries will react to their cases. The same evidence that makes you angry at the other side might make jurors angry at you. I'll show you how it works.

Here's a fact about health care. Ready?

Many people get diabetes because of social or economic factors in their neighborhoods, such as lack of neighborhood grocery stores or safe places to exercise.

Does that fact make you more supportive of public policies to prevent diabetes, or less supportive?

Existing attitudes change perception

If you're like the subjects in the study by University of Michigan researchers Sarah Gollust, Paula Lantz, and Peter Ubel, your answer depends on what your political orientation was in the first place. "If you are more liberally minded the 'neighborhood explanation' can be motivating, but for people who are more conservative politically, that message can backfire and make them even less interested," Ubel said in the study's press release. "The same information can polarize people."

Mock trials have convinced me that this isn't just a political phenomenon. A single piece of evidence can bring one juror adamantly to the plaintiff's side and send another firmly into the defense camp. The difference isn't the evidence, it's the jurors themselves — their backgrounds, attitudes, frameworks.

Unlike many trial pitfalls, lawyers and clients often don't see this one coming. After all, the same forces are working on them too. They arrive at the mock trial personally convinced, deeply convinced, that the facts are not only indisputable but irrefutable — that they can only be interpreted one way. When it takes a mock juror less than a minute to use the same facts as evidence for the opposite conclusion, they're shocked.

"Advocacy groups need to be very careful in thinking about who their audience is and what framing will work best for that audience," says Michigan researcher Ubel. Individual advocates do too.

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