WHAT’S A SCHEMA GOT TO DO WITH IT?

Sara Gordon, a law  professor in Nevada, published a very informative article titled “Through the eyes of Jurors: The Use of Cognitive Psychology in the Application of the “Plain Language” Jury Instructions.” In the article she discusses how people process information and the role of ”Schema’s” in doing so.  Her  explanations  have application to trial lawyers. Here are some of Professor Gordon’s comments for you to consider.

A “schema” is a cognitive framework or concept that helps individuals organize and interpret information.  Schemas are a type of cognitive shortcut –they are used to organize information from our past experiences so that we can efficiently apply them to new experiences or efficient understanding. The process of schemas development begins in early childhood when we integrate new information as concepts. A schema, therefore, represents an individual’s accumulated knowledge, beliefs, and experiences which are applied to new information we encounter. The accumulated  schemas influence how we perceive and make inferences about new information. This is consistent with the fact that our significant life experiences, our values and our strong  beliefs filter new information and situations we come across.

Schemas are resilient.  Once formed, they are often unaffected by logical challenges. This is known as the” perseverance affect .” Once established, they persist, even in the face of evidence to the contrary or instructions to disregard. In fact,  schemas persevere even when people are shown that the evidence in support of them is false. This  perseverance effect is so strong that when faced with information that challenges  existing  schemas people ignore the inconsistencies or construe it as if it supported their position. In one research study it was found that when people considered evidence that was consistent with their beliefs, brain regions associated with learning and memory were activated. When the evidence was inconsistent with people’s beliefs, the areas associated with error detection and conflict resolution were activated . The authors concluded that people’s beliefs act as a ” biological filter” for how we interpret new facts or situations.

Other factors influence schemas.  One of these is the priming effect.  Priming refers to the idea that a recently suggested idea will influence ones conclusions.  For example when researchers primed the study group with words associated with being elderly and then timed the subjects walking to the elevator afterwords , they discovered that the subjects walked more slowly than those who had been exposed to neutral words. The words, therefore, primed  schemas that influenced behavior. In another study the subjects  were asked to estimate “how many” would be the number of something. With one group large numbers were suggested as the possible answer and with another low numbers. The estimates were influenced by the suggested numbers acting as a primer.

Another factor that influences  schemas is that of  framing. Linguist George Lakoff has written extensively about this subject.  Framing  refers to the selection of words to describe a subject, person or circumstance. People use frames to understand and put into context situations they encounter. Frames help shape and define issues. For example, is it a ” war on terror” or a “war over oil”? Is it an “estate tax” or a “death tax”? Does the frame “Forrest restoration” have a different impact than “clear cut logging”? These are frames and how we frame something influnces how we interept the information when applying our existing schemas.

All human  learning relies on working memory and long term memory. When people are learning new information it is procesed  in working memory and then forms schemas that are stored in long-term memory. Working memory is mainly a short term storage place for processing and it cannot store more than limited amounts of information. If  we ask jurors to learn too much too quickly we will overwhelm their working memory and shut now new learning. This is why simplicity, clarity and brevity are so essential in presenting our case. We need to use simple visuals and clear, understanable works with metaphors in order  to allow  people to process the information before storing  in long term memory.

Professor Gordon’s article was focused  on the need for plain and simple words in jury instructions, but was most informative about how jurors process information as well.

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