Four Jurors: When Attachment to Our Beliefs Blinds Us to the Truth

I write a lot about attachment and certainty. I’ve been fascinated throughout my career by the way we, as human beings, appear to be certain about what we know, despite research, anecdotal evidence, and personal experience telling us otherwise. I recently sat down with an inmate convicted of attempted murder and discussed a number of things with him. In this article, I’ll just tell you about four particular jurors who stood out to him.

In the United States, people have a right to a jury trial, which means that they have a right to sit in front of a body of 12 people who have sworn to render an impartial verdict, penalty or judgment. As “impartial” as the jury is in theory, the reality is that jurors are subject to confirmation bias, their own belief systems, and perhaps most fascinating to me: attachment to what they know. Attachment to what we know is understandable, but nonetheless, history has demonstrated that attachment to what we know can lead to mistakes. 

The man convicted of attempted murder with whom I was sitting with told me how, initially, four of his jurors found him innocent. He paused as he recalled the moment when he learned that four people genuinely believed that he didn’t do what he was accused of doing. He remembered thinking how he and his lawyer had “gotten over” on these people. He remembered thinking that it energized him to know that he could be a part of a team that could convince people that something that happened didn’t actually happen. He was young and different back then, and it’s important for the reader to know that the man I was sitting with appeared to be a very different man than the one he described from his youth. He very much was embarrassed to admit that these were his thoughts. 

On this particular day, our conversation really hovered around those four jurors. Four people who no doubt believed that they got it right, and that the rest of their peers must have been bamboozled. Four people who thought, “These other people want to unjustly send an innocent man to prison.” 

But before we levy judgment on those four jurors for their attachment to believing that they were right, it’s probably extremely important for us to realize that we, too, tend to do the exact same thing when we view ourselves as “right.”

Life is complicated. Life is not as black and white as we tend to see it, but still, there is a huge part of us that wants life to be black and white. We want life to be easy to understand. We want to believe that what we think and believe is the truth, because to even entertain that those with differing religious, political, or philosophical beliefs might see something that we don’t is asinine to us. Still, our own attachment to our certainty is no different than those four jurors who once found a man innocent—a man who, by his own admission 14 years later, not only certainly attempted to kill the man he was charged with attempting to kill, but also admitted to doing “other terrible things” for which he was never caught. 

Right now, you likely believe that what you think about the world is right. You are probably convinced that your beliefs are the correct ones, and that those who oppose your thoughts (or even have different ones) are flat out wrong. In that way, you are like those four jurors who wrongly believed a man was innocent of something he absolutely admitted to not being innocent of doing. Hopefully, the take away for you from this is to be open constantly to the reality that you might not always see as much as you believe you see. But maybe there’s something different to gain from this than what I see; I don’t know, but I’m not attached either way….