Jury research has consistently shown that jurors only understand about half of the law they are expected to apply to the facts in a trial. When jurors do not understand the law — and as laypeople, they typically have little or incorrect knowledge of the law when they enter the courtroom — they will rely on preexisting stereotypes, biases, and incorrect expectations of what the law is when making decisions about the facts in a trial. Most of the legal education jurors do receive comes in the form of jury instructions, which are not typically drafted with the jurors’ education in mind, and do not generally offer much guidance to jurors for applying that law to the facts they have just heard and reach a decision. Thus, the little education jurors do receive is often not enough to create competent decisionmakers.
A significant body of legal literature has examined jurors’ use and understanding of jury instructions, and many scholars have recommended methods to improve juror comprehension of instructions. This Article is the first law journal article to take that analysis a step further and consider all of the major scientific studies that examine motivated cognition and apply them to jury decisionmaking. Because much of juror cognition is motivated, we can harness the power of this motivated cognition to further increase juror comprehension of the law and improve juror decisionmaking. All people are intrinsically motivated to make sense of their surroundings and jurors are similarly motivated to understand the law they will need to apply to the facts in a trial and to reach an accurate verdict. These core social motives affect the cognition and decisionmaking of all jurors and we can use them to better motivate jurors to efficiently learn the law and to think carefully about how the law will apply to the facts they will see in a trial. Like other frameworks and biases that affect how people perceive and interpret information, we cannot eliminate this type of motivated cognition, but we can use it to motivate jurors to understand the law, to be accurate in that understanding, and to persist in thinking about the law until they reach a good decision.