I've been reluctant to kick the hornet's nest on this one. Folks seem pretty divided on The Reptile Theory. Like Paris - you either love it or you hate it.
The notion that we should regard jurors as reptiles to get some huge verdict out of them by playing to their fears has always struck me as cold-blooded, and not a little inhuman. How we regard people and things becomes how we treat them. I felt so strongly about this I co-wrote an article with Stephanie West Allen and Jeffrey Schwartz for The Jury Expert entitled "Atticus Finch Would Not Approve." [Click AllenSchwartzWyzgaTJEMay2010 to read.] My position has only strengthened.
I used to work with a beekeeper who insisted on calling the honeybees "really angry" when they reacted to us opening the hive boxes. He treated them as if they were somehow "really angry." He over-smoked them. He was tense, jumpy and afraid. His physical actions conveyed fear. At the end of the day working with him I was a wreck.
And yet, there was nothing to fear. We were suited up for the job. We would get head-bonked by some of the guard bees; but that was normal behavior. No bees chased us or swarmed us. A honeybee has to be truly threatened to sting; when she does she rips out her guts and dies. Not an action to be taken lightly.
When I was trained as a beekeeper I was told to remember, "No jerks in the beeyard." While I have not yet gotten to the stage where I will work my hives wearing only a veil, I know that to bee Zen keeps everyone - beekeepers and honeybees - calm.
It works with people, too. The Science of Compassion by the social scientist David DeSteno writing for the NYTimes shares the results of scientific research that shows empathy with the suffering of others is alive and well. Excerpt:
"As a social psychologist interested in the emotions, I long wondered whether this spiritual understanding of compassion was also scientifically accurate. Empirically speaking, does the experience of compassion toward one person measurably affect our actions and attitudes toward other people? If so, are there practical steps we can take to further cultivate this feeling? Recently, my colleagues and I conducted experiments that answered yes to both questions.
In one experiment, designed with the psychologist Paul Condon and published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we recruited people to take part in a study that was ostensibly about the relation of mathematical ability to taste perception — but that in actuality was a study of how the experience of compassion affects your behavior.
In another study, published in the journal Emotion, the psychologist Piercarlo Valdesolo and I conducted an experiment ostensibly about music perception — but that actually investigated how feelings of compassion might be increased.
Our hunch was that compassion is easiest to feel when you have a sense of commonality with someone else."
And what did the scientists find? Excerpt:
"What these results suggest is that the compassion we feel for others is not solely a function of what befalls them: if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves — even a relatively trivial one — the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly.
What does this mean for cultivating compassion in society? It means that effortful adherence to religious or philosophical dictums (often requiring meditation, prayer or moral education), though clearly valuable and capable of producing results, is not the only way to go. There is nothing special about tapping in synchrony; any such commonality will do. Increased compassion for one’s neighbor, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as (say) a fan of the same local restaurant instead of as a member of a different ethnicity.
Simply learning to mentally recategorize one another in terms of commonalities would generate greater empathy among all of us — and foster social harmony in a fairly effortless way."
I am not Pollyanna enough to believe that I can buy someone a Coke and the world will live in perfect harmony.
I agree that there is fear in the world. Look at everything from video games to the nightly news to the most recent midnight movie massacre in Aurora, CO. You will get more than your share of a diet of human suffering.
But fear does nothing to improve the situation - fear causes us to hide, bar the doors, become complacent. Ironically, when we feel an empathy, a compassion for the situation we will act - whether for gun control, mental health, local food, a jury verdict, whatever. How does it work this way?
"What these results suggest is that the compassion we feel for others is not solely a function of what befalls them: if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves — even a relatively trivial one — the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly."
Like my friend the angry beekeeper, you get what you name. Whether or not the honeybees were "really angry," he perceived them as such and treated them that way. It was how he perceived them that created the expectation of harm.
I've had enough of fear. I prefer to be on the side of those who encourage a deep compassion for human suffering and from that place articulate for action to lessen the plight of others.