« Intriguing jury sentence in Texas for female teacher having group sex with (adult) students | Main | Changes in juve justice in Illinois and nationwide »

August 19, 2012

Sentencing at heart of research on "How to Move a Mind"

This week's New York Times Magazine has this must-read article discussing social science research on how opinions change.  (The hard copy delivery to my door carries the summary headline "How to Move a Mind; Changing a strongly held belief has little to do with actual facts." The on-line version here carries a different headline.)  The piece should be read by all lawyers and public policy advocates, and here are excerpts that include reports on notable research involving sentencing issues:

Scientists have been studying attitudes and preferences for more than a century; those topics are bound to the origins of social psychology itself....

In the last decade, psychologists have focused increasing attention on moral attitudes. Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the Stern School of Business at New York University and author of “The Righteous Mind,” told me that researchers have been especially interested in the way emotions and attitudes interact. Moral attitudes are especially difficult to change, Haidt said, because the emotions attached to those preferences largely define who we are. “Certain beliefs are so important for a society or group that they become part of how you prove your identity,” he said. “It’s as though we circle around these ideas. It’s how we become one.”

We tend to side with people who share our identity — even when the facts disagree — and calling someone a flip-flopper is a way of calling them morally suspect, as if those who change their minds are in some way being unfaithful to their group. This is nonsense, of course. People change their minds all the time, even about very important matters. It’s just hard to do when the stakes are high. That’s why marshaling data and making rational arguments won’t work. Whether you’re changing your own mind or someone else’s, the key is emotional, persuasive storytelling.

In 2006, researchers from Ohio State University and Colorado State University demonstrated that a well-written TV drama can change the political opinions of college students. They split 178 students into two groups. One watched a crime show that told a persuasive story about the value of the death penalty. The other group watched a different, unrelated drama. Afterward, both groups were interviewed about their personal beliefs and their opinions on the death penalty. The students who watched the crime show were more likely to support the death penalty. In fact, support for the death penalty was about the same whether those students self-identified as liberal or conservative. That wasn’t true among the students who watched the other show. There, political ideology strongly predicted their opinions on the death penalty.

Timothy Wilson is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and the author of the book “Redirect,” about how we change our minds and behavior. Stories are more powerful than data, Wilson says, because they allow individuals to identify emotionally with ideas and people they might otherwise see as “outsiders.”...

In some cases — if we want to think of ourselves as thoughtful and open-minded — we can adopt identities that actually encourage flip-flopping. This is why juries function, and it’s what places pressure on scientists to form opinions based on reliable data. In 2009, the Oregon Legislature mandated the creation of the Oregon Citizens’ Initiative Review, panels made up of random residents assigned to review and assess ballot initiatives in “citizens’ statements.” The panelists know they’re expected to base their opinions on hard evidence, and this expectation becomes part of their temporary identity.

Under those conditions, says John Gastil, professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State, facts suddenly matter. He points to Measure 73, a widely popular mandatory sentencing initiative, which the citizens’ panel voted against, 21 to 3. The panelists felt obligated to consider the measure more carefully than they otherwise would have, Gastil says, so they noted the high costs and thought about people who might be unfairly punished. Only a minority of voters knew the panel existed, so the measure still passed — though by a smaller margin than expected. In a study he performed on the public response to Measure 73, Gastil found that the panel’s opinion significantly changed the minds of those people who read its findings. “You got a shift from two-thirds in favor to two-thirds against just by reading the report,” Gastil says.

August 19, 2012 at 12:27 PM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Sentencing at heart of research on "How to Move a Mind":


The key is emotional, persuasive storytelling...

I couldn't agree more. That's how my experience in life has been on changing people's minds about the registry, and about sex offenders. I mean, I may have facts and science on my side, but those sorts of dispassionate figures matter a lot less when we talk about emotional subjects such as sexual violence, or just sex in general.

If I've changed anyone's mind about sex offenders, or about the utility and purpose of the registry, it has been by them getting to know me for me, then me telling them about my past. I've seen the change occur in people who, before they knew I was a SO, would make comments like we all need to be shipped off to an island, etc. Then, when they found out, their opinions changed.

It wasn't because I told them all about the studies indicating a low rate of recidivism for sex offenders, or pointed out that residency restrictions do nil to protect anyone and only serve to destabilize people's lives thereby making them more likely to reoffend -- it was just by them knowing me, then finding out that piece of information about me. It's kind of remarkable. I've seen that change occur even in tough-nosed prosecutorially-minded individuals -- one of my good friends in law school was a former cop.

Not to say that it works for everyone, of course. But I suspect, based on my experience, that having that story -- my story -- can be a lot more effective than facts and figures ever could. Maybe these laws will change when everyone in America knows someone whos life has been torn asunder by them, so hey, I'm doing my part.

And as for that last bit, don't mistake me: I believe in punishment, just not in perpetuity, subject to change at the caprice of the legislature.

Posted by: Guy | Aug 19, 2012 5:59:38 PM

The article fails to mention a couple of influences.

1) The group. Move to Iran. Within days, one is seeing their point of view. Within weeks one is shouting, "Death to Omrika." You will believe what your surrounding group and culture believes, even in the absence of coercion. It is nearly impossible a change in mind if one receives 1000 letters demanding a change in vote. That is why there is no point in persuading the lawyer to end all supernatural doctrines, and failing methodologies. They are immersed in them like fish in a sewer. They are even oblivious to their mental surroundings.

2) Money. That is the simply the simplest, most reliable, fastest way to change someone's mind. While judges cannot take bribes, their spouses can be hired as do nothing consultants for high wages, infusing that household with a luxury lifestyle. Donate to a re-election campaign so the candidate can stay at the Ritz-Carlton rather than at the Motel Six.

3) Physical intimidation. Kill 7 million Germans, and 6 millions Japanese to help them see the error of their world views.

The jury represented a major advance whenever it was invented, harnessing the wisdom of the crowd. However, the sole valid vote is the first secret vote. It should be the only one allowed. This article supports that view. “You got a shift from two-thirds in favor to two-thirds against just by reading the report,” Gastil says. All subsequent votes of the jury reflect the view of story telling bully, and the desire to go home.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 19, 2012 6:22:47 PM

Yes, it is true a well-written TV drama or diplomatic speech can change anybodies life

Posted by: Research Transcription | Aug 21, 2012 6:26:16 AM

A lot instances happen over a period of time about how television drama can impact somebody or even the society in a drastic way. So study of psychology about mind and behavior will helps a lot.

Posted by: Research transcription | Jun 10, 2014 3:27:10 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB