Recent Jury Box Blog Entries

Subscribe to The Jury Box Blog

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Facing the Fearful Jury: Terror Management Theory in the Courtroom

A few years ago, a collection of scholars at Harvard realized that there existed a great deal of psychological, neurological and sociological research on human cognition and behavior with profound implications for the practice of law. In order to explore these implications in a systematic way, they started the Harvard Project on Law and Mind Sciences, (PLMS) housed at Harvard Law School.

The founders launched several initiatives at once. They established The Situationalist, a blog devoted to the intersection of mind sciences and legal institutions. Rather than having the blog written by the same person all the time, The Situationalist invites contributions from dozens of scholars from all over. The result is an ecclectic and fascinating overview of exciting developments in this field.

PLMS has also run four conferences exploring psychological aspects of the law. The 2011 conference focused on causes and consequences of inequality. The 2010 conference dealt with the heavy-duty challenge of what, if anything, neuroscience can tell us about morality.

There is also a student group, The Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS), which publishes its own blog and also sponsors a speaker series at the Law School. These talks, which are open to the public, cover a fascinating and diverse set of topics. The Fall schedule is now posted on the SALMS website.

I have the honor of delivering the first presentation of this semester. My talk, entitled "Facing the Fearful Jury: Terror Management Theory in the Courtroom," will be on Tuesday, September 13, at Noon, in 101 Pound Hall at Harvard Law School. The presentation, including time for questions, will last about one hour.

For those of you who are curious about what exactly Terror Management Theory (TMT) is, I would point you to two resources. First, there is an excellent review article, by Lieberman and Arndt, in The Jury Expert, the online journal of the American Society of Trial Consultants (ASTC). Second, you can review an earlier posting to The Jury Box Blog about the arrest of Tarek Mehanna, a pharmacist from Sudbury, MA who faces trial this fall on terrorism-related charges. In that earlier blog post, I anticipated that Terror Management Theory would have a lot to do with how this case would ultimately be resolved. As the eve of trial approaches, I will return to Mehanna's case during my upcoming talk.

It will have escaped the attention of few of you that my talk falls very near to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. This is no accident, in that the SALMS organizers have made a concerted effort to use this year's speaker series to reflect on the consequences of that fateful day for how we think, feel and react to the law. I know that we all remember where we were on that morning. As it so happens, I was sitting in Bill Eskridge's Civil Procedure class at Yale Law School, in a classroom not-so-different from the one where I will be giving my presentation 3654 days later. I know that those events affect me psychologically -- emotionally -- even today. Imagine what must go through the minds of jurors who are forced to face those fears head-on while deciding the fate of someone accused of plotting new terrorist acts. And so we have TMT in a nutshell.

I hope that those of you who are local will join me for what should be a very interesting discussion on Tuesday. For those who cannot attend, I will be sure to post here, and on my Twitter Feed, where one can watch the recorded talk online, once it is posted.


  1. First, I would like to once again thank the folks at SALMS at Harvard Law School for the invitation to speak to their group.

    For those of you who are interested in the topic, but were unable to attend, we are trying to get the recorded audio synced with my slides so that we can post the talk in a useful way. We are putting it in the capable hands of the Harvard Law School A/V team and I'll post an update when it goes live.

    I got several really good questions after my talk that I think are worth sharing here.

    1) Is it possible that, after 10 years of war and terrorism coverage, we are experiencing "terror fatigue" which would blunt the "mortality salience effect"?

    2) I had listed several strategies that the defense team in the Tarek Mehanna trial might employ to reduce the consequences of mortality salience on the jury. I then pointed out, rather off-handedly, that the prosecutor, of course, would do everything she could to "scare the bejeezus" out of the jury. One student asked whether I thought that doing so would constitute unethical behavior on the part of the prosecutor.

    3) Finally, Professor Hanson asked whether Terror Management Theory in some way ran contrary to his observation that people actually had an appetite for witnessing horrific things and for subjecting themselves to thrill rides and scary movies. In short, if people watch car races for the crashes, do we really think they fear reminders of their own mortality?

    These are all really worth thinking about. I plan to devote an upcoming blog post to addressing all three. So, stay tuned. In the meanwhile, feel free to submit your own thoughts and observations here.

  2. I was interviewed earlier this evening by Paul Burton of WBZ-TV (our local CBS affiliate) and Doug Cope of WBZ Radio (1030 AM) about jury selection in the Tarek Mehanna trial, which begins tomorrow morning. It should be on the 11 pm news tonight and on regular rotation on the radio tomorrow. It will also be uploaded to their website tomorrow.

  3. Hey there if anybody reading is interested in getting more practical info on TMT out of the mouth of Sheldon Solomon, we're holding two webinars by him:

    The first is called “Creating Meaning: on the Role of Death in Life”
    May 22 ($35, ya I know that sucks)

    But the second is FREE and called “Self-Esteem: The Belief that One is a Valuable Contributor to a Meaningful Universe” on June 12.

    (I'm an intern with the Glendon Association spreadin the word -- sorry if this is considered spam!)