Saturday, March 09, 2013
Review of Twelve Angry Men and Group Dynamics
The 1957 film Twelve Angry Men is a dramatic portrayal of what happens in a jury room after a murder trial in which the defendant is a young minority man who has allegedly killed his father with a switchblade knife. Eleven of the jurors are ready to declare a guilty verdict in the first five minutes, but one juror performs the Central Negative role in the group in order to save them from groupthink, as described by Irving Janis (1972) and also save the defendant from execution. The paper examines how the film portrays the deterioration of the jury’s ideational homogeneity.
Eleven Angry Men and One Central Negative
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution states:
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense. (U.S. Const. amend. VI)
This right to a jury trial is the foundation of our legal and justice system. Because English common law required a jury of twelve, that tradition was adopted in the early United States; the requirement that the verdict be unanimous was also adopted, almost taken for granted. The jury is to act as one voice in condemning or acquitting the defendant.
Novelists, playwrights, and Hollywood screenwriters have long used the jury system and the trial scenario as a backbone of their craft. However, one film/play stands out for it emphasis not on public courtroom histrionics but on the deliberation behind closed doors, where the jurors meet in private. Twelve Angry Men, a 1957 film directed by Sidney Lumet and based on a teleplay by Reginald Rose, enacts for about two hours the group processes of twelve male jurors of somewhat diverse backgrounds, motivations, and world views as they move to a decision that the defendant is not guilty. For many reasons, the film is a good way to study group dynamics, consensus, and groupthink.
Before analyzing the film, three background comments. This play is a staple of high school and college theatre, but because in the original all the characters are male (and white), today the play is presented as Twelve Angry Jurors so that females can play the parts. Anyone who has worked in educational theatre knows that there are far more females than males in those settings. Secondly, the play takes some small liberties with the justice system since it is fiction and must provide dramatic moments. The main character, Davis, played by Henry Fonda, more or less retries the case and interprets the evidence, forcing the other jurors to make their decision based not on what the lawyers presented but on what Davis presents. Third, all of the characters are European Americans; although one character is a naturalized immigrant, he is apparently German or Eastern European. Therefore, the diversity comes from class, education, and background.
Plot and Characters
The characters do not really have names; only two at the end introduce themselves. To keep them separate, I will name them by their defining characteristics: Mr. Central Negative (Davis) – Henry Fonda; Mr. Mindless Baseball Fan – Jack Warden; Mr. Broker – E.G. Marshall;
Mr. Embittered – Lee J. Cobb; Mr. Immigrant – George Voskovec; Mr. Racist – Ed Begley; Mr. Slum Background – Jack Klugman; Mr. Foreman – Martin Balsam; Mr. Old Man – Joseph Sweeney; Mr. Ad Executive – Robert Webber; Mr. Working Joe – Edward Binns; and Mr. Milquetoast – John Fiedler.
The film starts with a long tracking shot of the outside of the court building that serves as symbol of the power of the justice system; the camera looks up at tall Corinthian columns and then goes inside the halls to see the scurrying reporters. The setting establishes part of the reason for the nascent groupthink that will define the group’s beginning—a sense of invulnerability and group morality (Park, 2000) based on the group’s connection to the American justice system. Next we see the jurors being charged by the judge, whose words imply that he thinks only one verdict is possible. As the jury leaves to deliberate, we finally see the defendant, a young man who looks like a juvenile (he is eighteen, we learn later) and also looks as if he is of Italian, Latino, or Middle Eastern descent.
Next, the jurors file into their deliberation room. The setting of the close, drab room with a broken fan and no air conditioning on the hottest day of the year is important to the tension. Later a thunderstorm comes up and serves as an interlude to the growing tensions and also symbolizes that something has changed in the room and in the group. The facilitator, the foreman, begins to do his job by organizing the jurors around the table by their numbers and then asking for a vote. All, of course, vote guilty, having already expressed that of course the “boy” is clearly guilty and that there is no other possible verdict. That is, all but one, the white-suited, tall, calm, implacable juror whom we later learn is named Davis.
Group Dynamics in the Film
Groups, according to Tuchman (1965) go through the phases of forming, storming, norming, and performing, and adjourning, or more specifically, orientation to the task, emotional response to task demands, development of in-group feeling and cohesiveness, and constructive action. In a loose sense, the jury portrayed in this film does progress through these stages, but in a punctuated way rather than a clean, consistent, evolutionary way (Gersick, 1991). The forming stage is very short; the storming phase takes up almost the entirety of the film; the norming phase takes place quickly and right before the performing (the decision on the verdict) phase.
The structure of the film is to progress through Davis’ deconstruction of the case evidence piece by evidence piece. After each phase, a vote is taken and more and more jurors come to say “not guilty.” Finally, only three are left to say “guilty”—the Broker, who is methodical and logical and not quick to be swayed by Davis’ arguments; the Racist, who goes on a rant about “these kind of people” until everyone ostracizes him by turning their backs on him, literally; and finally Mr. Embittered, who is holding on to the conflict with his son, breaks down and realizes the real core of his opposition, and votes “not guilty.” The Central Negative has swayed everyone to his side.
Central Negative is a role defined by Janis originally in one of his later works on groupthink. As Cragan, Wright, and Kasch (2008) state, the central negative role is considered so important that it should be delegated or assigned. However, there is some contradiction, even in their book, over whether the central negative is an altogether positive force in groups. The role—the set of behaviors associated with being a devil’s advocate and questioning the group’s assumptions and quickly, easily made decisions—is one that, if assigned, should be rotated. If the role is really just a personality, that person’s negativity will truly become central and hurt the group’s processes.
In the film, it is not clear, at least to me, whether the Davis character is playing the role, is always a “centrally negative person,” or is motivated by something else. He is constantly called a “do-gooder” and “bleeding heart” by the other characters, and he is so calm and unemotional that one wonders if he could be some sort of plant for the defense! At one point he says, “I don’t know the truth. Can we know it?” This seems to be an odd, postmodern line in a 1950s’ film; likewise, the goal of the trial system is to discover truth, not to doubt its existence. He seems to be saying that since they can’t know any truth, and therefore the truth about this trial, even from the evidence, that they should not convict the young man. That is a far cry from not buying the prosecution’s case. He is not just questioning the lawyer’s arguments—he is questioning reality and the basis of human action. On the other hand, perhaps he has an ulterior motive in his disruption of the groupthink. He is stalwart in not backing down, despite what is thrown at him.
The jury scenario is a form of group process, but it is constituted by certain rules and expectations that distinguish it from work groups and teams. The goal is total, yes/no agreement; rarely in a real group is perfect consensus met, but a type of compromise consensus where everyone can support the final outcome but at different levels of emotional commitment. There are twelve members, according to tradition; work groups operate best with seven or so. The work group exists for an extended period of time, perhaps years, while the jury exists for a few hours to a few weeks, with rare exceptions. The work group members usually know each other outside of the group and will continue to have a relationship afterward because they, of course, work for the same organization. The jury members may never see each other again and ideally should not know each other beforehand, although in a small community that is hard to ensure.
Finally, a work group would be far more diverse than the group depicted in the film. Juries should ideally be diverse, but they often are not. Mitchell and Eckstein (2009), in their study of groupthink in juries, state,
Through the process of voir dire, in which prospective jurors are examined, attorneys attempt to make informed juror selections that will benefit their cases (Howard and Redfering, 1983). In doing so, they attempt to make the jury more homogeneous with respect to the qualities that they perceive to be beneficial.” (p. 165)
Groupthink in juries is a real phenomenon. Mitchell and Eckstein’s study is very helpful in analyzing the group dynamics portrayed in the film, and it is this element that I would like to explore in this paper. In fact, they reference Twelve Angry Men as an example of a situation where groupthink did not take over the verdict; however, I would take a different tack. Eleven of the angry jurors are clearly involved in groupthink in the first fifteen minutes, but the film serves as an example of how groupthink can be solved.
The theory of groupthink was originated by Irving Janis, a psychology professor at Yale, in 1972. He based “groupthink” on case studies of political and governmental decision-making disasters, such as the Bay of Pigs. Since that time, the word has become well known, but researchers differ on how much empirical evidence supports the theory. Turner and Pratkanis (1998) point out the theory is difficult to study empirically because Janis involved so many variables in the theory (24) that controlled experimentation and coding of language behavior is very complex. They also state that there are three interpretations of the theory and that “how to translate theoretical concepts into observable and measurable constructs becomes a source of heated debate” (p. 108).
Turner and Pratkanis’ view is echoed by Park (2000), who did set out to study the many variables in a controlled setting. As he states, “Janis’s groupthink model, which has 24 variables all together, consists of four categories: the antecedent conditions of groupthink, symptoms of groupthink, symptoms of defective decision making, and outcomes” (p. 875). He goes on to say that of the 30 studies trying to verify the theory up to that time, the studies that supported it were content analysis or case studies research, and that empirical research either “partially supported or did not support the model” (p. 876).
Dealing with twenty-four variables is daunting, so I would like to focus on the categories of antecedent conditions and symptoms in this analysis of the film. These variables are:
· Antecedent conditions: Group cohesiveness, leadership style (close-mindedness), group insulation, methodical procedure, group homogeneity, external stress, hope to make better decision, and self esteem
· Symptoms of groupthink (occurring in the actual deliberation): illusion of invulnerability, belief in group morality, collective rationalization, stereotypes of out-groups, self-censorship, illusion of unanimity, pressure on dissenters, self-appointed mindguards (Park, 2000)
All of these symptoms of groupthink exist in the film, to some extent, although some predominate. The illusion of invulnerability is inherent in juries, since they do have a great deal of power in our legal system—unless they cannot come to a verdict. In the film, the characters express a fear of being a “hung jury,” which would constitute failure. Even those who begin to agree with Central Negative Davis believe that the defendant would not get a “not guilty” verdict on a second trial. Belief in group morality is also strong in this jury, except perhaps for one character. Likewise, one or two characters are self-appointed mindguards, especially adamant about their position until the very end.
Stereotyping of out-groups is strong in the film. One of the key elements is Mr. Racist’s continued insistence that the defendant is “one of them,” raised in the slums, from whom society cannot expect more. However, the third juror to change was also “raised in the slums” and changes mainly to make the point that he identifies with the defendant. The immigrant is the fourth to change his vote, also mainly to make a point about the judgmentalism he perceives in the group toward immigrants and the group’s lack of appreciation for democracy. Collective rationalization exists to the extent that early in the film there is very little effort to think critically or to examine their assumptions.
Other characteristics that are seen in the film are group insulation, or isolation, which is part of the jury process. The film starts with the assumption and illusion of unanimity; it is not until the last slip is read during the first vote that it becomes apparent someone is dissenting. The pressure on the dissenter starts; in fact, the drama in the film comes from the hot, tired jurors badgering and berating Davis and anyone who starts to agree with him. They insult the dissenters until the dissenters outnumber the “guilty” believers. In terms of leadership style, the foreman is closed-minded and at one point even pouts and closes off communication because of a disagreement with his leadership decision. He is one of the later ones to change his verdict, but by that time the Central Negative has taken charge and become the real procedural and emotional leader of the group.
Ironically, group cohesiveness is not an issue in the early groupthink of the film that slowly disintegrates under Davis’ questioning. The group members really do not seem to care about each other or have any cohesiveness beyond small talk, and there is actually quite a bit of animosity between them. To the extent that cohesiveness means commitment to a task, all of the characters are focused on getting a verdict, although one member only wants to make a decision so he can go to a ball game. Also not relevant to the groupthink dynamics of the film are the characteristics of hope to make better decision, self censorship (everyone talks eventually, since it is a movie), methodical procedure, and self esteem.
Of course, the whole film is groupthink in reverse—not how groupthink leads to a bad decision, but how fighting it can stem the tide of groupthink, just as Janis suggested in 1972. How does Davis do it? First, he does not back down, although his “I don’t know about truth” statement makes one wonder why he is so adamant about finding truth he does not believe exists. Second, he does not partake in the badgering, no matter how much he is insulted and no matter how much the insults become part of the group’s norms. He is saintly in this respect. Third, as each fellow juror begins to express doubts, even slight ones, he listens respectfully and encourages them on to the “logical conclusion” of their doubts. The first to turn is the Old Man, who quickly becomes his ally; the Old Man has a sharper tongue than Davis does and puts others in their place when needed. Fourth, he articulates his arguments very well and provides proof to his arguments that the evidence does not point to a guilty verdict; he even brings in his own evidence and re-enacts scenes. In short, he is patient, diplomatic, and immoveable.
The Answer to Groupthink
How did Janis say a group should battle groupthink? At the end of his book he gives several prescriptions:
1. The leader should encourage each member to give highest value to expressing ideas that do not fit the norm, and the leader should be open to those criticisms.
2. Organizational leadership should charge the group with tasks without giving predetermined or biased views of expectations of the results.
3. Organizations should have more than one group working on a policy question, and each group should have a different leader.
4. The work group should split up from time to time and meet separately.
5. The members of the work group should be able to talk to outsiders about the group’s deliberations and report back their reactions.
6. Outsiders, specifically experts, should be invited to meetings from time to time in order to challenge the group members’ ideas.
7. One member should be assigned the devil’s advocate, or central negative, role at each meeting.
8. The group should hold a “second chance meeting” (p. 218) where members can revisit the decision that has been made and feel free to express their doubts.
The jury process makes almost all of these prescriptions unfeasible in the jury room. Only one, the first, that the leader should facilitate freedom of expression to disagree, is practical. Given the time, social pressure, and personality constraints, it is easy to see that the kind of groupthink that appears at the beginning of Twelve Angry Men and that slowly evaporates in the course of the drama would be prevalent in most juries.
Gersick, C. J. G. (1991, January). Revolutionary change theories: A multilevel exploration of the punctuated equilibrium paradigm. The Academy of Management Review, 16(1), 10-36.
Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Kragan, J. F., Wright, D. W., & Kasch, C. R. (2008). Communication in Small Groups: Theory, Process, Skills. Boston: Cengage.
Mitchell, D. H. & Eckstein, D. (2009, September). Jury dynamics and decision-making: A prescription for groupthink. International Journal of Academic Research, 1(1), 163-168.
Park, W. (2000). A comprehensive empirical investigation of the relationships among variables of the groupthink model. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 21, 873-887.
Rose, R. (Producer), & Lumet, S. (Director). (1957). Twelve Angry Men. United States: Orion-Nova Productions.
Tuchman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399.
Turner, M. E. & Pratkanis, A. R. (1998, February/March). Twenty-five years of groupthink theory and research: Lessons from the evaluation of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73(2/3), 105-115.
U.S. Const. amend VI.
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