Psychosocial Dynamics of Twelve Angry Men Social-Psychology Case Study

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Psychosocial Dynamics of Twelve Angry Men

Social-Psychology of Twelve Angry Men

As a portrayal of a microcosm of society -- enhanced by its drill-down into the 1950s era in which the plot unfolds -- few films are as excruciatingly accurate as 12 Angry Men. The story lends itself to analysis of team dynamics and conflict resolution techniques, with the promise of extending beyond explicit attributes, such as an all-male cast, and less explicit themes, such as ambiguous hints about ethnicity and race.

The film 12 Angry Men is a story about the deliberations of a jury in a capital murder case that takes place in New York City in 1957. An 18-year-old non-Caucasian male, who is apparently from marginalized socio-economic strata, has been accused of stabbing his father to death. A jury of 12 men will deliberate his guilt or innocence against a backdrop of an automatic death sentence for a guilty verdict. The stage play origin of the story is evident in the staging with all of the film action occurring in the jury room, representing a single afternoon and evening during which the deliberations of the jury take place. At the onset, the case is considered to be an open-and-shut matter, but all the jurors must believe in the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt -- the verdict must be unanimous. But as the prejudices, preconceptions, and disagreements of the jurors unfold, raw notions about legal trials, minorities, and the stark range of perspectives and opinions steer the jurors off a sure course.

The identity of two of the jurors is revealed at the end of the film in an epilogue when juror #8 (Davis) and juror # 9 (McCardle) introduce themselves on the courthouse steps. All of the jurors are identified by number, as follows: #1 high school football coach (also the foreman of the jury), #2 bank teller, #3 owner of a messenger service business, #4 stock broker, #5 hospital nurse, #6 painter, #7 salesman, #8 architect, #9 an older man, #10 garage owner, #11 watchmaker, and #12 advertising executive. In this manner, the jurors are both known to the audience -- and to each other -- and not known. That this is so adds a level of relevancy to the interactions of the members of the jury for whom socio-economic status and educational attainment may be assumed accordingly.

Analysis of Conflict and Dynamics

Identification of conflicts. Through the backstories of the characters in the film, the conflicts are illustrated. Jurors #1 and #2 don't want to ruffle feathers and are just eager for an expedient conclusion -- they want to escape this forced "hostage" situation with little to no pain. Juror #3 is self-made man and competitive to the point of trying to bully everyone he sees as being a potential competitor. Juror #4 believes in the power of objective deductive reasoning. Juror #5 can identify with the defendant as someone who has grown up on the streets, fighting to survive, but he is so desperate to distance himself from the painful associations that he asserts the defendant is guilty. Juror #7 and, to a lesser extent, juror #6 are mistrustful of people who differ from them -- people who are foreigners, say. Jurors #10 and #11 believe strongly in the infallibility of the legal system and hold to the idea that the defendant was arrested for the crime because of a preponderance of evidence indicating he was guilty -- though the two jurors will come to recognize that this is not the situation. Juror #9 would prefer to just go along with the other member of the jury. Juror #12 holds everything up to the light of capitalism and marketing -- he seems to have no frame of reference for the criminal case or the other jurors.

In summary, it appears that there are just a handful of conflicts in the overheated and claustrophobic jury deliberation room: There are those in the jury who only wish the process will come to a quick end and are not concerned with the rightness of the verdict. Some of the conflict between the jurors is strictly interpersonal and has more to do with establishing dominance than with collaborating to achieve a reasoned outcome. Several members of the jury put their conscience in conflict with both group dynamics and a deliberation process that could easily tack to some course that is devoid of true steerage. In other words, the institutionalized process can take on a life of its own with the jurors only going through the motions. A undergirding conflict is that between empathy and objectivity. This is the conflict that the jurors who are fearful of the other must face down, and that those who could most easily align with the defendant must deny. Objectivity acts like a shield for the members of the jury who feel they must protect their privileged status. And objectivity acts like a sword for the members of the jury who believe that reasoned discourse will uncover truth and establish justice -- or at least the best approximation of truth and justice that they can achieve -- a verdict of not guilty.

The elementality of a verdict. The verdict that a jury hands down is a thing composed of many elements. Each of these elements brings some level of conflict into the deliberations. The primary element is that a unanimous verdict must be handed down -- this is an inescapable fact. Early in the film, the jurors agree to take an informal vote to see where they stand. This preliminary count results in 11 jurors agreeing that the defendant is guilty of murder, and one juror hesitant to commit to the absolute certainty that the verdict requires. Juror #8 stands alone in his vote of not guilty.

At one point in the first act, the certainty of the jurors' deliberations comes unhinged when juror #8 presents a knife to his fellow jurors as a demonstration that the knife presented as evidence against the defendant is not such a unique implement. The "unusual-looking knife" submitted as evidence in the trial has been identified as an Italian stiletto switchblade with a Filipino-style Kriss blade -- a configuration that is not apparently that rare, as argued by juror #8 in his effort to induce reasonable doubt among the jury. From this point forward in the film, juror #8 successfully provokes other members of jury, though he does so through patient and low-key but relentless questioning of statements made, arguments posed, and evidence provided from the trial. The certainty of the members of the jury is further eroded by his efforts -- and the snowball effect that he creates -- until only three jurors maintain that the defendant is guilty and eight have changed their vote to not guilty. The jurors who are steadfast in their judgment of the guilt of the defendant include juror #3 (the owner of the messenger service), juror #4 (the stockbroker), and juror #10 (the owner of the garage).

Exploration of Intra-Psychic Processes

Thompson and Nadler (2000) put forth a theory of cognitive bias in order to provide a framework for resolving blocked conflict resolution processes. People are typically not aware of these cognitive biases, according to Thompson and Nadler (2000), since they tend to rely on their usual ways of thinking during under typical circumstances. However, conflict situations require less error-prone thinking and more objective judgments than do ordinary situations (Thompson & Nadler, 2000). In their words,

In conflict, bias is apt to occur because conflict often leads to inadequate communication between the negotiating parties; arousal of emotional tensions that constrict thinking to stereotypes and to black-and-white viewpoints; primary focus on opposed interests; and anxiety, which may propel one to deny the conflict or flee into agreement before thinking through the consequences (Thompson & Nadler, 2000, p. 214)

According to Thompson and Nadler (2000), there are four particularly common kinds of bias, and each holds the potential for certain related effects. The authors identify these biases as follows: (1) Tendency to simply the conflict; (2) tendency to exaggerate the level of opposition between the parties; (3) tendency to create a false dichotomy between competition and cooperation; and (4) tendency to favor one's own interests even while trying to be objective and fair (Thompson and Nadler, 2000).

The tendency of the jurors to simplify the conflict is apparent in their reliance on stereotypical information and their rejection of information that does not conform to their perspective (Thompson & Nadler, 2000). Oversimplification is also characterized by a knee-jerk defensiveness that distorts true cause-and-effect relationships (Thompson & Nadler, 2000). The strong emotional undercurrent of act one is testimony to power of this bias, in that, it curtails self-awareness and emphasizes a climate of blame and retaliation.

The third bias presented by the authors has an interesting application to the processes of juries in deliberation. Thompson and Nadler (2000) assert that the contesting parties have to adopt a position as…

Sources Used in Document:


Allred, K.G. (2000). Anger and Retaliation in Conflict. In Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, Eds. The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bas Publishers, 2000, pp. 236-255.

Bethel, G.A. (2011, July). Jury deliberations -- how do reasoning skills interplay with decision-making? Retrieved October 19, 2012 from

Bradner, R., McFArline, P., McGregor, M. And West, J. (2012). Twelve Angry Men: An analysis of group effectiveness. Unpublished paper, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond.

de Tocqueville, A. (1835, 2011) Democracy in America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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