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What we can learn from 12 Angry Men

Can a 1957 black-and-white movie tell us anything about how to have tough conversations in 2020?

It’s a testament to 12 Angry Men that it is considered one of the finest courtroom dramas ever made, despite showing the inside of a courtroom for about 15 seconds. Apart from the raw drama, however, the events depicted in the movie (and the play which preceded it, which continues to be staged) is a treasure trove for lovers of persuasive technique and human psychology.

Henry Fonda told you no cream in his coffee

The background is well known. Twelve male jurors are sequestered following a criminal trial in which an 18-year-old immigrant boy is accused of murdering his father. Let’s acknowledge that this movie was made in the 1950s and the cast are all white men over the age of 35. That has nothing to do with the plot, or the point, so get over it. This isn’t a feminist studies class.

“There were eleven votes for “guilty.” It’s not easy for me to raise my hand and send a boy off to die without talking about it first.”

The scene opens with the jurors filing into the jury room and beginning deliberations. As each is asked his opinion on the case, it is clear that it is a unanimous guilty verdict save for one man — Juror 8 (Henry Fonda). Only Juror 8 is prepared to offer a not-guilty vote, angering the other eleven jurors who see the case as comprehensively made out. Over the next 90 minutes, Juror 8, through respectful and deliberate analysis (and, let’s face it, some eye-catching tricks like the one in the video below) attracts more support to his position until he secures a unanimous not guilty vote.

Always bring a knife to jury deliberations

So what can we learn from 12 Angry Men?

The first lesson is this: the legal system is rife with human error, laziness, and potentially even malfeasance. The movie depicts incompetent defence counsel, a bored judge, and lying or mistaken witnesses. All of these factors are alive and well in any justice system, and although we like to pretend they don’t exist, they are only too real, and affect outcomes every day.

Juror 8 is the star of the show, however. And Fonda’s depiction of Juror 8 demonstrates the hardship of being a contrarian, of swimming against the tide, of expressing an unpopular opinion. By the end of the movie it’s easy to forget that Juror 8 starts this journey utterly alone, subject to criticism, isolated from his peers. How much easier is it in real life to simply go along with the crowd, stay quiet, and say nothing? It’s hard. Very hard. But one of the key lessons of 12 Angry Men is that this sort of social coercion harms everyone, but it harms the truth most of all.

How does Juror 8 begin his quest to convince 11 other jurors to change their vote? By simply engaging, and doing so in a humble manner. He doesn’t argue with the majority, he simply begins a conversation in as non-confrontational a manner as possible, hoping that dialogue will allow him to read the room, understand the personalities, and see where he might find allies.

It’s no accident that in a key scene, Juror 9 recognizes the difficulty of Juror’s 8 position and changes his vote to not guilty: “Well, it’s not easy to stand alone against the ridicule of others. He gambled for support and I gave it to him.”

“Well, it’s not easy to stand alone against the ridicule of others. He gambled for support and I gave it to him.”

As Juror 8 wins over his fellow jurors one at a time, we’re treated to a review of every form of logical fallacy, prejudice, bias, laziness and motivated reasoning that ever plagued a room full of decision-makers. But we’re also shown how one man can persuade others, not through hectoring and insulting, but through an appeal to facts and reason, while recognizing that the viewpoints of others are to be respected even if they may be erroneous. There’s clearly a lesson here if one wishes to learn it.

Lest we think that Juror 8 is infallible or all-knowing, we watch as the other jurors begin to question the evidence and add to the factors which cast doubt on the defendant’s guilt. Juror 8 at one point admits that he had forgotten a certain fact. Another juror — one of the last “guilty” hold-outs, identifies a key point about a witness which finally convinces him of the defendant’s innocence.

Once again, Juror 8 does not attempt to rally support to his viewpoint through threats or intimidation or force of argument. He allow each juror to formulate their own reasons for voting not guilty, and come to that conclusion on their own. This is the paradox of persuasion — you can rarely persuade others to accept something that they have not already convinced themselves to accept.

If 12 Angry Men stands for anything, it stands for the idea that the view of the majority only means that most people agree — not that they’re right.

So what does 12 Angry Men tell us about disagreement and persuasion in 2020? Be humble. Focus on engagement. Back up your arguments with facts and logic. Identify and guard against biases, in yourself and others. And have courage. It’s always going to be easier to go along with the crowd, not raise a fuss, be polite. But discomfort and unpopularity are sometimes the price you pay for having convictions. Don’t give them up without a fight. If 12 Angry Men stands for anything, it stands for the idea that the view of the majority only means that most people agree — not that they’re right.


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