Our Students in Action

John McCabe

Can Studies Done on Undergrads Inform Trials with Real Jurors?

"The most common lab animal," says the old psychology joke, "Is the college sophomore." Doctoral student John G. McCabe is keenly aware of how this limits the validity of studies in psychology and the law. The average citizen called for jury duty, after all, is not an upper-middle class 20-year-old. It is often argued that undergraduates are specifically selected for, trained in, and taught to value the ability to systematically analyze information, which others are not. "The courts have long ignored empirical research in jury decision-making, and an oft-cited reason is the use of undergraduates as subjects. If we could show that researchers have a handle on the differences between student and community populations, we could have an impact while continuing to use undergraduates. After all, they are convenient. I think demonstrating an understanding of these differences would go a long way to bolstering researchers’ arguments for changes in the system." Variables that consistently account for differences between student and more representative jurors’ legal decision-making have been surprisingly hard to come by.

"The justice system is peculiar," John says. "The system as a whole is supposed to be a reflection of our society’s moral outrage at particular actions. But, at the same time, we want the jury’s decision to be based solely on a systematic analysis of the facts." What if, however, you have a truly unsavory defendant who has done some despicable things in the past, but those past actions are legally irrelevant to the current decision the jury has to make? John’s Master’s thesis project tested whether having the defendant’s attorney acknowledge the jury’s negative visceral reaction to the defendant and his past actions would impact their verdicts in a instance where the information was admissible but the jurors’ reaction to it was legally irrelevant to the decision. "I took the idea from a psychotherapeutic technique called empathetic mirroring. It’s like when a boss says to an irate employee, 'I can see you are very angry,' in order to acknowledge the employee’s feelings, lower the employee’s emotional reactivity, and allow for a more reasoned conversation—in other words, a more systematic analysis of the situation."

In addition to finishing up his coursework this semester, he is currently working pro bono as a trial consultant on an attempted murder case in Los Angeles Superior Court. "The case involves many of the same types of issues I have been researching. That is, how to get people to look beyond their prejudices."

John recently authored a paper submitted to Psychology, Public Policy and the Law, that he describes as a possible first step in developing a theory-based way to distinguish undergraduate from community representative samples in legal decision-making research.