Several people have asked me what effect if any, the San Bernardino shooting, along with other mass shootings with the haunting backdrop of terrorist threats, will have on jury decision making. Such questions assume that people are living in fear yet again and are being forced to consider (even subconsciously) their own mortality more than they have had to in a long time, probably the most since September 11, 2001.
An often forgotten yet pertinent principle in Social Psychology is called Terror Management Theory. This theory posits that fear and dread are brought on by reminders about our own inevitable death. Individuals spend a great deal of psychological energy minimizing reminders of their own death. We see this phenomenon when someone says “I do not smoke so this (other) person who smoked and died of lung cancer did something to cause his lung cancer” upon learning about someone who died of lung cancer. Or when someone is killed in a car accident people often find some aspect of the accident that provides a barrier for how that could never happen to them – “well they must have been driving recklessly which I never would.” While we try and avoid thinking about our own death, sometimes, for example during terrorist threats, we are forced to do so.
According to Terror Management Theory, when individuals are reminded of their own death they tend to attach themselves to state institutions and symbols that transcend individual life spans. Examples of this are people become more patriotic about their country, or they embrace cultural causes and political issues seen as never ending, or they become more hardened in their views of government. Also, during mortality awareness when existential anxiety is created, people tend to be more certain of their beliefs and more often see things that reinforce what they already believe.
When people spend significant cognition managing terror they become diffusely angry and more punitive. This anger is not just aimed at those directly responsible for mortality awareness – the anger is scattered more broadly at anyone perceived to have done something wrong. Some jury research has found that those who are reminded of their own mortality tend to give harsher sentences (in criminal cases) and award greater punitive damages (in civil cases) compared to those who do not get a reminder about death and its permanence.
Does mortality salience influence the judgments jurors make when evaluating case information and then during deliberations? Terror Management Theory would predict an eroding of the tendency toward leniency in a jury setting and instead increase an impulse to punish. While terrorism is back on the news 24-7 with the backdrop of “coming soon” to a sporting event, movie theater, or café near you, jurors will be prone to lash out. In personal injury cases and many criminal cases I believe jurors will be more likely to punish defendants who they perceive as not taking safety seriously, even if they have no connection to a mass shooting or act of terror. In these times, when people are forced to acknowledge their inability to live forever, harsher judgment patterns will tend to increase.