I have observed a curious phenomenon among wild turkey during the spring breeding season—which is blooming now, right along with the daffodils.  Male turkeys (toms) will often travel in packs and they display some pack behavior as they search for a mate.  There is, in lupine terms, an “alpha” tom.  If a hen is discovered, he will be the one to strut for her and he’ll fight off any competitors.  His tagalongs act the part of deferential wingmen.  They sit patiently on the sidelines and largely do nothing.  However, if that alpha tom is taken by a hunter, the whole event turns into something out of Nat Geo: Ignoring the unbelievably loud and unnatural sound of the shotgun blast, the other toms will rush in to kick, hack, and peck at the helpless victim.  These tough facts of nature serve to prove true Tennyson’s observation that “…Nature, [is] red in tooth and claw.”[1]  Crows display similar behaviors and will dive upon, and even eat, a flock member who shows weakness or is in the throes of death.  There is a rumor that this behavior is why a flock of crows is called a “murder.”  These toms and crows, once “in-group” confederates of feather and flock, seem to have made an “out-group” of their fallen comrades.

Though not a perfect analog, these avian facts are, admittedly, what sprang to mind when I read the study I’ll review this month.  It’s a study on out-group and in-group bias.[2]  As you might know or glean from context, out-group bias is the phenomenon of those ugly biases we feel towards those who we don’t consider to be like us or part of “our” group.  In-group bias is the favorable bias we extend to those who we think are like us or who are in our group.  This particular study in these biases sought to determine how jurors would treat defendants and victims who had one or more brothers who were convicted criminals.[3]   If a defendant had, say, three brothers who were criminals, would a jury be more likely to convict?  If a victim had three brothers who were criminals, would jurors be more inclined to acquit?  As you can imagine, the findings of the study would seem to hinge on how much a juror identified with the defendant or victim—making them part of the in-group—or how much they considered the defendants or victims to be “in” or “out” with their nefarious brothers.

The methods of the study are rather detailed, so for the sake of my limited available space here I will boil it down in a way that will, admittedly, oversimplify it.  There were two studies here. One study gauged how mock jurors handled evidence that a male defendant with no criminal record had zero, one, or three brothers with criminal convictions.  The second study measured how mock jurors handled evidence that a male victim of a crime had zero, one, or three brothers with criminal convictions.  The fact pattern for the case involved an assault and battery, so there was a prospect that the defendant could have been acting in self-defense against the more-aggressive victim. After reading the fact patterns, mock jurors were asked a battery of questions to gauge their degree of identification and affiliation with the defendant and victim. Researchers asked the mock jurors numerous questions about blameworthiness, deservedness (that is, did the defendant or victim deserve what happened to them), the likelihood of self-defense, and, naturally, whether the defendant should be adjudged guilty or not guilty.[4]

Let’s now turn to the findings.  Unsurprisingly, the more a mock juror identified with the defendant, the less likely they were to convict.[5]  If a mock juror identified more with the defendant, they were also more likely to blame the victim.[6]  Along these same associational lines, if a mock juror identified more with a victim, they were more likely to convict.[7] If mock jurors thought the victim more similar to his criminal brothers, they were more likely to say that defendant had acted in self-defense.[8]  So far, the study seems to reveal neat and tidy in-group and out-group biases.

But then things stop being neat or tidy.  Say the researchers, “Contrary to our hypothesis, a greater number of criminal associations caused the defendant to be perceived as less like his brothers [statistical figures omitted], not more.”[9] To put it another way, if a defendant had three brothers convicted of crimes, his own clean record caused mock jurors to believe he must be the good egg of the family. Additionally, the more criminal associates a defendant had the more likely jurors were to believe the defendant had acted in self-defense.[10] Finally, say the authors:

For defendants, having criminal associates was mostly advantageous; and when it was not advantageous, the effects were null rather than disadvantageous.  Victims received the opposite treatment.  Mock jurors perceived the victim more negatively when he had criminal associates compared to no criminal associates, and in these instances the defendant received relatively favorable perceptions.[11]  [Emphasis added.]

            You have to now admit that I had you confused in the beginning, didn’t I?  You had a moment up there where you were sure I’d lost it with my turkeys, and crows, and Tennyson.  Perhaps, now, you can see how a study which reveals the uphill battles victims can often face might make me think of creatures that descend mercilessly on their stricken or injured comrades.  These clinical revelations are, perhaps, among the chief reasons we study these lurking biases and heuristic short-cuts our brains impose on us: that we may catch ourselves before we kick, hack, and peck at the out-groups we have created around us.


[1] Quoted from the poem “In Memorium A.H.H.”  Additionally, April is National Poetry Month.  Let’s all take a moment or two this month to read some good poetry.  I’m happy to offer recommendations on request.

[2] For more information on out-group and in-group biases, see generally J.W. Howard & M. Rothbart, Social Categorization and Memory for In-group and Out-group Behavior, 38 Journal of Personality and Soc. Psyc., 301-310, 2 (1980).

[3] Peter O. Rerick et al., Guilt by Association: Mock Jurors’ Perceptions of Defendants and Victims with Criminal Family Members, 27 Psych., Crime & L., 282 (2021).

[4] See generally Id. I am, here, editing and oversimplifying the extensive battery of questions posed to the mock jurors.

[5] Id. at 291.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 296.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 290.

[10] Id. at 291.

[11] Id. at 299.