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O.J. vs Donald - The Difference Between Groupthink and Crowd Wisdom in Jury Deliberations

Just a couple of real lady killers

In the 1957 classic, 12 Angry Men, Henry Fonda was the lone standout in a jury of 12 men - 11 of whom were quick to convict a young man of murder based on circumstantial evidence. Over the course of a tense, sometimes nearly violent ninety minutes, Fonda's character manages to convince the men - one by one - that the boy should be found not-guilty.

The movie provides a perfect examination of both groupthink (where all 11 are instantly convinced of the defendant's guilt because of bias, or in one case the guy just wants to get to a baseball game), and an examination of Crowd Wisdom (where collectively the group puts aside personal convictions and determines - through debate and resolve - the correct outcome for the situation.

For entertainment purposes, the movie is a fascinating foray into the persuasive powers of conviction and influence.

But what about today? How does a modern jury deliberate and come to a consensus, especially if takes place in the ever-divided landscape of modern politics and celebrity, where unanimous decisions regarding both former President Donald Trump and the murder trial of O.J. Simpson have now occured?

Understanding Groupthink and Crowd Wisdom

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon where the desire for harmony or conformity in a group can result in irrational or dysfunctional decision-making. Characteristics can include suppressing dissenting viewpoints, a lack of critical analysis, and an illusion of unanimity.

Classic examples include the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, where cohesive groups made poor decisions due to the suppression of dissent.

Now, test this idea in a small room with 12 strangers under pressure to produce results under the law as they understand it, and it can be quite debilitating.

In contrast, crowd wisdom, or the "wisdom of the crowds," the concept upon which I’ve based my book series “The MindSet Chronicles,” suggests that collective decisions can be surprisingly accurate when individuals act independently. This phenomenon is evident in markets, crowdsourced problem-solving, and even TV game shows like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

I first fell in love with the idea of groupthink and crowd wisdom back when another D.C. official was in hot water. This time it was 1988 and the mayor Washington at the time, Marion Barry, was arrested for smoking crack with an undercover agent. It was caught on camera and he was tried, convicted and removed from office.

At the time, I was a fourth-year college student at the University of Maryland, living and working in D.C., so I was right in the center of it all. Back then, the outrage was swift, decisive and just. Barry denied the charges and claimed he was set up. But the evidence was clear, and the jury agreed. Barry didn’t just let down his city, to many young black hopefuls who needed a role model, turns out he was all smoke.

Interestingly enough, just five years later I was living in Los Angeles when the famous O.J. Simpson case happened. As a reporter, I covered the Bronco chase live on the air, and followed the trial daily as the case against the former running back from USC unfolded.

The double murder of his wife and her friend shocked the nation. O.J. was world famous, an athlete married to a woman with model looks cut down in her prime in a brutal fashion.

However, the accusation of a double murder – despite the overwhelming evidence against him – still cast concrete doubt amongst his supporters. The brilliant Johnny Cochran led O.J.’s “Dream Team” of lawyers to victory with a jury that was forced to endure nine months of sequestration and deliberation.

One of two things Robert Kardashian didn't see coming

The acquittal of O.J. cast a light on a much larger issue that just his guilt or innocence. The L.A. riots, which happened a few years earlier, saw three white cops also acquitted for the brutal beating of Rodney King, a black motorist who was pulled over for driving under the influence.

The beating, caught on tape, clearly showed abuse of power amongst the officers. But when their “Not Guilty” verdict was read, it was like lighting a powder keg in Los Angeles. For three terrifying days and nights the city erupted in violence, flames, vandalism and destruction of property. The damages stretched from Florence and Normandy in South Central L.A. all the way up to Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley.

Later, after many of the O.J. jurors were interviewed, they admitted they didn’t care that O.J. did it. Their acquittal verdict was retribution for the Rodney King beatings. The country was split into two very decisive camps: Guilty and Innocent. It was the resurgence of an underlying, dormant racial animus that I believe just kept getting worse.

"I never used the "N" word, except for always."

O.J. claimed fervently that he was innocent. He claimed he would spend the rest of his days trying to find his wife’s killer. And despite a mountain of evidence clearly showing his trail from the murder scene back to his house, he claims he was set up by the police. That claim was helped considerably by Mark Fuhrman, a detective on the case the night of the murder, who was under suspicion himself for planting a bloody glove at O.J’s house.

Oh, and they also had dozens of tapes with him using the “N Word” despite his denials that he ever said that word.

What both O.J. and Fuhrman were a part of was classic gaslighting. The term comes from the movie “Gaslight” where a husband tries to make his wife think she’s insane by changing the level of gas in their light fixtures but claiming they are always the same. She goes mad as a result.

I won’t get into the clinical definitions, or the myriad examples of modern relationships and family issues around the topic. Instead, I want to focus on what happens when crowd wisdom (also thought of as common sense) butts up against gaslighting (also thought of as lying or manipulation for personal gain).


Jury Deliberations: A Unique Case of Crowd Wisdom and Groupthink

Jury deliberations are uniquely designed to mitigate groupthink while harnessing crowd wisdom. Jurors are instructed to consider evidence independently and deliberate collectively, balancing individual assessments with group discussion. This process aims to prevent the dominance of a single viewpoint and ensure a thorough evaluation of all evidence, promoting a more reliable outcome reflective of collective wisdom.

Let’s see how both concepts worked in the O.J. and Trump cases.

The O.J. Case: A Surprising Unanimity Thanks to Groupthink

Based on the previous rioting in Los Angeles, it was believed that the African American community in L.A. and generally across America had reached a point where enough was enough. The exoneration of the officers who beat Rodney King didn’t just spawn three days of rioting, it set a racial division in quick-hardening cement that might never be broken apart.

The jury, mostly black, had simply had enough of racial inequality and the lack of justice around the Rodney King beatings as well as other incidents where police seemed to get off the hook easily.

It is widely believed that only two jurors were willing to convict O.J. at the time of their decision, but they were pressured to acquit by the other ten members. Most of the participants admitted as such.

Juror #6, a former Black Panther, famously raised his fist in the air right after the verdict, indicating support for O.J. Carrie Bess, another juror, admitted years later to an interviewer that she knew he was guilty, but her part in O.J.’s acquittal – as well as “90% of the jury” - was was “Payback.”

Did that 90% force Not-guilty pressure upon the other 10% of the jury? Maybe. But where Crowd Wisdom may bring out the correct result from a group, groupthink relies on the pressure to conform. Based on the information that has come out since the decision, it seems that this trial was decided the moment the jury was seated.

The Trump Case: A Surprising Unanimity Thanks to Crowd Wisdom

The case against Donald Trump, given the politically charged environment, was expected to result in a hung jury. The political divide in the United States suggested that jurors might be influenced by their political leanings, or pressure from the defendant and his allies, leading to an impasse. However, after five weeks of testimony and evidence review, the jury reached a unanimous verdict, finding Trump guilty on all counts.

Groupthink was for sure a threat in this case as Donald Trump is arguably as famous if not more than O.J., and any jury seated in a case against a former president could potentially have a bias – especially given the divisive era we live in politically these days.

Here are some factors that made a difference: Trump’s trial was much shorter. The jury wasn’t sequestered. The case didn’t follow a similar injustice that might require what Ms. Bess admitted was “Payback.” Instead, the Trump case was based on a felony indictment with materials and proof and witness that was nearly impossible to defend.

In the end, the jury of 12 New Yorkers found Trump guilty on all 34 counts of his indictment. Any pressure they might have felt didn't come from within their ranks, but instead from the media and the two sides of the case – each believing the Jury would make the wrong decision. So, when confronted with this huge task, one that would ultimately rewrite presidential history, the jury got together and came up with the verdict based on the evidence, the law, and the truth.

Role of Groupthink and Crowd Wisdom in the Trump Case

In both O.J.'s and Trump's cases, the defendant utilized gaslighting to defend themselves, each never admitting any wrongdoing despite obvious factors that indicated guilt. As a result, supporters of each defendant vehemently defended their hero, while those who were sure of each defendant’s guilt, fought passionately for their opinion as well.  

This has always been the case when an obvious wrong-doer commits crimes and then looks you in the eye and swears it didn't happen. The damage that results is a fracturing of reality and the opposite of critical thinking, where half the observers are certain they are right despite over whelming evidence and the other half who actually understand the truth are forced to doubt themselves.

But what it came down to was the way each case was argued. Years after O.J., it has been largely agreed upon that the team assembled to prosecute the former football star made many mistakes: the case went on too long; it was in the wrong venue; the assistant attorney Chris Darden was foolish to let O.J. try on the glove; and, you know, Fuhrman!

Conversely, O.J.’s team put on a defense that threw so much chafe in the air, there was no way the prosecution could ever attack it all. Not to mention, the judge, Lance Ito, was undoubtedly the wrong man to preside over the circus the trial became.

In Trump’s case, it was the prosecution who came correct. Anticipating the defense’s arguments and counter arguments, the attorneys attacked quick and to great effect. The defense was left scrambling for solutions, desperate to assemble stories or counter-narratives that might give the jury some doubt. None really came.

Let's apply Occam’s Razor to the above.

In O.J., The jury was exhausted and overwhelmed with the complexities of the case. Racial animus was high, and empathy and understanding was low. Missing their families, and hungry for payback they were sending a message. They had a national platform and they used it.

For Trump’s jury, faced with a clear timeline and story that was digestible, the jury seemed to focus on the simplest, most straightforward interpretation: the factual falsification of business records. This principle, combined with structured deliberations, helped the jurors cut through biases, intimidation and fear to reach a clear decision.

The unanimous decisions in both O.J. Simpson and Donald Trump underscore the need for structured deliberation processes in achieving just outcomes. While groupthink poses a risk in any group decision-making scenario, the jury system is ultimately designed to promote crowd wisdom, allowing independent thought to coalesce into a fair verdict.

No more is this evident than with the example of "12 Angry Men." But I also contend that it's in everyday courtrooms where everyday citizens are brought together to do their civic duty and hand out justice fairly. I believe, more often than not, these and other cases highlight the importance of creating environments that foster critical analysis and open discussion, ensuring that even in a politically or racially divided society, justice can still prevail.


What do you think... O.J. Innocent or Guilty?

  • Uh... duh... YES!

  • No way, dude... it was the cartel... or someone.

  • O.J. who?

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