Battle of the Neuropeptides

Let’s say you’re a criminal-defense lawyer, and you’re about to pick a jury. You want the jury to trust you and to be generous with your client, but you’re not sure you can trust them to. What can you do to improve your chances?

Here’s the new-agey TLC kumbaya answer: trust them first. The theory behind this is that if you show your jurors that you trust them (as, for example, by revealing your deepest fears about the case), they will reciprocate.

Oxytocin is associated with human trustworthiness: when people are playing an anonymous “trust game,” those who are shown trust have higher oxytocin levels than those who are not. Oxytocin, in turn, increases trust: people with higher oxytocin levels are more trusting (con men use these effects to take people’s money). So there is scientific support for the new-agey answer: if you want your jury to trust you, trust them first. People with higher oxytocin levels are also more generous. So if you want your jury to help your client out, trust them.

This appears to be a good example of what is good for the goose not being good for the gander. Oxytocin is a mammalian hormone some call the “love hormone” (not only do lizards not laugh, but they also apparently don’t love); as Steven Pressfield writes in Gates of Fire (one of my top three favorite books) and elsewhere, “love is the opposite of fear.” And indeed, oxytocin makes people less afraid. So Oxytocin won’t help you reach jurors’ reptile brains (if you’re a plaintiff’s lawyer who rolls that way) or make people afraid (if you’re a prosecutor; highly emotional stories of suffering can also increase people’s oxytocin levels, so even in telling a complainant’s tragic story, a prosecutor might be better served by keeping it clinical).

Along with pulling back the curtain, labeling, and making jurors laugh, showing jurors that we trust them may help us get our clients what they need.

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7 responses to “Battle of the Neuropeptides”

  1. Mark;

    Although, that general statement is true,, the opposite of fear “the emotion” is anger. Whenever there is fear,, there is always anger behind it. Whenever there is anger,, there is either “fear” or “hurt” (emotion) behind the anger.

    Another way to emotionally understand and trust the jury. As I often say,, trust comes through amoung other ways,, understanding the emotional needs of a particular group or individual and fulfilling those needs or wants of the group or individual.


  2. Phew! after all the “Battle of the Rules”, and appropriately enough, post Valentines day, it’s makes me all warm and fuzzy to talk about: ” Oxytocin (the) mammalian hormone some call the “love hormone”. But then it’s followed up with all this talk of ‘FEAR”, “ANGER”, “RAGE”, “HELPLESSNESS”. This is all starting to sound like the Periodic Table equivalent a a family violence case. In fact I think I’m gonna take some (legally prescribed of course) Oxycontin – and go to bed! – Standley – OUT!

  3. I’m hardly one to doubt trial advice from someone who has infinitely more trial experience than I. If it’s your experience that trusting the jury pool first gives you better lawyers, I believe you. It certainly sounds reasonable.

    However, I would warn about making simple assumptions about brain chemistry. Hype aside, oxytocin has lots of effects, not all of them pleasant or desirable in a juror. For example, see Oxytocin Promotes Human Ethnocentrism (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, De Dreu et al.) [abstract], which suggests that oxytocin may fuel “intergroup conflict”.

    • Excellent point, Greg. Thanks for the reference. (Next you’re going to be telling me that cortisol has effects that are desirable in a juror.)

      Group-centric (?) thinking may actually be desirable in a juror. Forming a group that includes the jury and the lawyer, but excludes opposing counsel, is one of the goals of a more-sophisticated voir dire. That’s jury selection at the postdoc level, though.

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