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Do the Wealthy Make Good Jurors?

“The rich are not like you and me.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

As a trial lawyer, I need to be able to predict which jurors will treat my clients fairly and which ones will not. Our country is becoming more polarized.  There are fewer middle class jurors, more wealthy jurors, and many more poor jurors.  I have learned that when it comes to jurors, the wealthy are a breed apart.

Groundbreaking research by social psychologist, Paul Piff, has revealed that the rich, or more importantly, those who believe they are rich, are more likely to cheat and lie than those who believe they are poor.

Piff has conducted 30 experiments involving thousands of participants.  A recent PBS NewsHour interview of Piff focused on the results of Piff’s recent studies.

Piff’s studies resulted in these findings:

  • Ninety percent of all drivers stop for pedestrians in crosswalks.  However, those who drive a luxury car, like a BMW, Porsche, or Mercedes, are three to four times more likely to break the law and refuse to yield to pedestrians than drivers of lower status cars;
  • Wealthier study participants took two times as much candy from children as did poorer participants;
  • In a contest to win a $50 cash prize, people making more than $150,000 to 200,000 per year were four times more likely to cheat than someone making under $50,000 per year.

In a surprising twist, Piff found that if you take a rich person and make him feel poor, he will become more compassionate and more giving.  If you take a poor person and make him feel rich, he will become more demanding and more greedy.

Jury psychologist, Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm, wrote an article entitled “Watch Out for Scrooge” in which he analyzed recent studies.  In his article, Dr. Broda-Bahm has the following advice for trial lawyers:

  • Those who believe they are wealthy tend to believe they achieved that station in life not because of luck, but rather, because they had some essence or attribute that the poor don’t have.  The danger for trial lawyers, many of whom make above-average salaries, is that they may believe that the members of the jury panel are “different” from them.
  • Those who believe they are wealthy think that people basically get what they deserve.  They believe that wealthy people like themselves “earned” their good fortune and that poorer victims “had it coming”.  Those who hold such a world view tend to focus on what the victim could have done to prevent his injury.  Trial lawyers should be aware that this class attitude will likely influence the way a wealthy juror will react to the facts of a lawsuit.
  • Those who believe they are wealthy behave differently when they are around people who are much wealthier than they are.  In other words, social class status is relative.  A wealthy juror might lack compassion for a poorer accident victim but might show a great deal of compassion for a victim who is much wealthier than the wealthy juror.

Dr.  Broda-Bahm concludes his article with a surprising observation: as a percentage of their incomes, the bottom 20 percent gives more than twice as much to charity than the top 20 percent gives. That’s a lesson about potential jurors that all of us who regularly represent poor people need to remember.