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The Secret to Getting Out of Jury Duty


Jury duty: two words that strike fear into even the most masculine of men. Often when people get their jury duty summons they spend inordinate amounts of time trying to figure out how to get out of it whether by claiming to be wildly biased (a rather conservative approach) or by creating a whole character of crazy a la Liz Lemon dressing up as Princess Leia and claiming, “I don’t really think it’s fair for me to be on a jury because I can read thoughts.” Either way, these tactics are often unsuccessful and you would most likely be better served by giving truthful answers to the qualifying questions than anything else.

In reality, if you know yourself and your mind, the truth might actually get you out of jury duty while also helping the court avoid a possible wrongful conviction. Although some cases are easily decided, the most ambiguous cases increase chance of wrongful conviction and application of heuristics in damaging ways. A heuristic, which is a mental shortcut that our brain creates in order to allow us to make quick decisions and judgments, is applied automatically when we approach a decision. However, because these heuristics may embody socially unacceptable implicit attitudes and beliefs, these automatic decisions can and often are overridden by controlled thinking. However, these heuristics may still be applied when the individual is using cognitive resources on other tasks. Research has shown that three factors play an important role in the jury member’s determination of defendant guilt: prejudice, working memory capacity (WMC), and cognitive load.

Although no one wants to admit that they carry prejudices, everyone does to some extent. Individuals’ responses to the implicit association test (IAT), a test of implicit attitudes about subjects such as race, gender, and sexuality, consistently reveal implicit preferences for White over Black individuals. However, explicitly, people are motivated to present themselves as not racially biased. Therefore, a theory called the Ironic Process Theory has come into use to describe the “modern racism” of today. White individuals want to appear to be unbiased racially, so they concentrate significant resources and energy on this pursuit. As a result, when they are multitasking or under stress, they end up making more racially driven decisions because they apply this implicit heuristic (of Black individuals as criminals) that they don’t have the energy to continue to mask (Gaertner & Dovidio, 1986; Wegner, 1994). The heuristic has become more salient over time because they have expended resources on repressing the automatic, implicit (or even explicit) prejudice to believe that Black individuals commit more crimes than White individuals. When the resources to repress this heuristic are low, it is easily accessed and applied to produce a conviction.

These heuristics are activated and used most often in the case of cognitive load. When under a cognitive load, individuals are more likely to apply heuristics and automatic processing to ensuing decisions because they are concentrating energy and resources on the cognitive burden that has been applied. This cognitive load can be external, in the form of the outside pressure of completing or thinking about multiple tasks at once, or internal, determined by working memory capacity of the individual.

Working memory capacity is determined by a person’s ability to hold recent information in memory while completing other, sometimes unrelated, tasks. Your working memory also pulls out mental representations from your long-term memory to modify and inform your current actions and thoughts. When you have high working memory, you can tune out other distracting elements around you and focus on the task at hand, suppressing automatic, heuristic-driven decisions. However, those low in working memory capacity have difficulty with these tasks. As a result, they may be bad candidates for a jury presented with an ambiguous court case in which competing evidence and testimonies lead to an imprecise conclusion.

Until recently, it had not been clear how these three components interacted in order to produce juror decisions, but in 2012, Kleider, Knuycky, and Cavrak set out to discover their role in strong, weak, and ambiguous court cases involving defendants of different races.

In order to test working memory capacity, the researchers used the Operation Span Task. In this task, the participant is given an equation, which they must solve and then respond to with true or false. Afterwards, a letter is shown for 800 ms. These steps are repeated up to 7 times, at which point participants must then recall the letters in order. Their performance on the word recall indicates their level of working memory capacity.

In the experiment, participants were presented with four types of cases considered “Black-race consistent” in order to activate stereotypes and heuristics about the connection between race and crimes: armed robbery, grand theft auto, drive-by shooting, and carjacking. Each of these types of cases had three different versions: a strong case (where the defendant was clearly guilty), an ambiguous case, and a weak case. These cases were paired with a picture of either a White or Black individual.

In the trials intended to induce cognitive load, the participants had to read 12 case files, and afterwards, learn and remember six non-words in the space of 30 seconds. They would have to recall these non-words after producing a verdict and confidence ratings of their decisions. In the non-load condition, the participants only had to read 6 case files before immediately producing a verdict along with their confidence ratings. Afterwards, participants’ prejudice levels were assessed.

For ambiguous cases, in which the competing evidence did not produce a clear result, the researchers found that, in general, when under a cognitive load participants were more likely to be produce a conviction for a Black individual. Additionally, when people with low levels of prejudice had no cognitive load, they were more likely to convict a White individual. In terms of the interaction of the three factors, it was found that participants with low working memory capacity, high prejudice, and high cognitive load were more likely to convict a Black defendant while participants with high working memory capacity, low prejudice, and no cognitive load were more likely to convict a White defendant. The researchers also found that for the strong cases just as in the ambiguous cases, participants with low working memory capacity and high prejudice were harsher on Black defendants than those with low working memory capacity and low prejudice. Weak cases, in which the participant was easily determined to be innocent, seemed to be unaffected by any of the three factors.

But what does this all mean? Working memory capacity is integral to the verdicts produced by a jury, but it is not the only factor involved. Compounded with increased cognitive load and high prejudice, low working memory capacity is likely to produce a conviction for Black defendants in ambiguous cases. If these three factors are often found together in jurors, the increased reliance on racial stereotypes to make decisions in these ambiguous cases could cause a large increase in wrongful convictions of Black individuals. It could also cause wrongful convictions for White individuals if their jury has high working memory capacity, low prejudice, and no cognitive load because of their attempts to remain unbiased.

Therefore, at the end of the day, if you really want to get out of jury duty, don’t try to come up with a million and one excuses for why you are unqualified. The court sees that every day. Instead, give them this paper and claim you have low working memory capacity and that your life is filled with constant stressors. They might just let you go. And even if they don’t believe that you magically fit into these levels of working memory capacity, cognitive load, or prejudice that should disqualify you for the job, the fact that you understand the importance of these factors in juror decision-making might actually help you get out of it. Maybe.

To read the full study, click here.


Gaertner, S. L., & Dovidio, J. F. (1986). The aversive form of racism. In J. F. Dovidio, & S. L. Gaertner (Eds.), Prejudice, discrimination, and racism (pp. 61–89). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Kleider, H. E. (2012). Deciding the fate of others: The cognitive underpinnings of racially biased juror decision making. Journal of General Psychology, 139(3). 175. doi:10.1080/00221309.2012.686462

Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101(1), 34–52.doi:10.1037/0033-295X.101.1.34

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