An Attributional Analysis of Jurors' Judgements in a Criminal Case: A Preliminary Investigation

Article excerpt

A study was conducted to determine the extent to which attributional complexity influences juror decision-making. Using Fletcher's (1986) attributional complexity scale, mock jurors (N=186). who were shown a videotape of a simulated armed robbery, then rendered individual judgments on the case. The results showed that attributionally-simple subjects found the defendant guilty more often both before and after presentation of the evidence, reported more confidence in their final decision, and attributed more personal causes to the defendant's behavior. Attributionally-complex subjects, while not excluding the role of internal causes, were more likely to consider external causes as possible influences on the defendant's behavior. The findings demonstrate the existence of clear individual differences in attributional style and the potential importance of this variable for jury selection.

The jury trial is an institution which draws ordinary citizens into the decisionmaking process of the legal system. Citizens who serve in the jury process are all placed in an unusual situation when attempting to understand the trial process. They must determine how, as well as why, a particular event occurred - and then base their judgment upon the information received.

Recently, the focus has been on individual differences between jurors - and how these differences affect juror decision-making (Graziano, Panter, & Tanaka, 1990; Pennington & Hastie, 1990). In fact, as Ellsworth (1993) points out, the inescapable conclusion from many research studies is that individual differences among jurors make a difference. Of course, most lawyers and researchers are interested in those individual differences which can be identified before the trial process. These include such factors as enduring personality traits, attitudes, past experiences, as well as individual differences in beliefs and knowledge about our social world and how it works.

Casper, Benedict, and Perry (1989) developed a causal model of juror decision-making, based upon information processing at an individual level. The model describes how personal attributes affect verdict choices based upon how each individual juror interprets the trial evidence presented to him/her. Using a sample of college students and individuals who had been called for jury duty, the authors found that cognitive processes and individual attitudes influenced the amount of award given in a civil case, based upon the interpretation of testimony.

Carroll, Perkowitz, Lurigio, and Weaver (1987) proposed a framework for organizing a number of individual difference variables which have been found to affect sentencing goals. The results supported a conservative ideology involving punishment, individual causation, and high authoritarianism scores. The authors also found support for a liberal ideology involving rehabilitation, belief in economic causes of crime, and the responsibility of one's government for all its people. As they point out, causal reasoning plays a central role in the translation of attitudes and beliefs into sentencing recommendations.

In a study using parole board members, Carroll (1978) found that recommendations for parole depended upon the stability of causal attributions regarding the offense committed. Recommendations for parole were much more favorable for cases given unstable, causal attributions. In addition, parole board members' individual differences also played a part in the decision-making process.

Studies using the attribution paradigm have reported that subjects are insensitive to situational explanations, and show a strong preference for dispositional explanations for others' behavior (Coates & Penrod, 1981; Fletcher, Grigg & Bull, 1988; Miller & Rorer, 1982; Tetlock, 1985). The present study considers the possibility that, instead of assuming that individuals are lazy processors of social information and quick to rely on heuristic explanations, one should consider that they may possess a particular attributional style which predisposes them to certain explanations for social behavior. …

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