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Is a jury of students like a jury of peers?

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

Jury simulations composed of college students are often used as a tool for legal, behavioral, and psychological research. The question is, how well do these “mock jurors” resemble those we see every day in our judicial system? Given the secrecy of jury deliberations, jury simulations offer a unique look into how jurors make decisions, and the factors that influence their decisions, and allow us to study jury decisions in a controlled context. However, many researchers worry that mock jurors lack resemblance to the behavior of “real world” jurors, as many mock jurors are college students.

One reasoning is that samples are often made up of students who are not necessarily representative of a normal jury as they are often younger, more educated, and of a higher socioeconomic level than the normal population. The worry is that these confounding variables of student population can negatively impact their “verisimilitude” when they participate in jury simulations.

This is the topic of a meta-analysis by Bornstein et al. titled “Mock Juror Sampling Issues in Jury Simulations” (2017). In this study, the researchers examined how sample (students vs. non-students) in jury studies can impact its reliability as a research tool. To conduct the meta-analysis, Bornstein and colleagues compiled 53 studies and analyzed them for six dependent variables: guilty verdicts, culpability, sentencing, liability verdicts, continuous liability, and damages.

This meta-analysis revealed that compared to non-students, student populations were more likely to find civil defendants liable and gave marginally harsher criminal sentences. Additionally, students gave more guilty verdicts when presented with written material, suggesting students were more familiar with processing complex textual material than non-students. Although students tended to be tougher on defendants regarding civil liability and criminal sentencing, researchers found few other main or interactive sample effects. These findings alleviated some concerns about the reliability and generalizability of jury simulations.

Sample characteristics are an essential component of designing any valid experiment, therefore it is reassuring to know that there are few significant differences between mock juries made up of students or community members. In the end, no study is perfect. All types of juror characteristics— not only student status, but race, age, and gender— can correlate with their decisions at trial. Therefore, the findings of this study should not detract from the value of student jury simulations. Instead, it should inspire new ways to understand and study juror decision making.

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