The film 12 Angry Men is a claustrophobic tale of what happens during jury deliberations following the trial of a young man accused of killing his father. Although the trial itself is not shown, from the opening moments of the film it is clear that the overwhelming opinion of the jury is that the defendant’s guilt was proven beyond a reasonable doubt; his conviction would appear to be virtually guaranteed.
However, an initial vote on guilty/not guilty ends up 11-1. There is one lone dissenter who replies that he voted not guilty not necessarily because he believes in the innocence of the accused, but rather because he believes that the fate of one man’s life deserves at least an hour of discussion of the facts.
It doesn’t take long to reveal that many of the men have come to the jury with predisposed prejudices, personal reasons for ending the proceedings without thoughtful deliberations, or other psychological problems that may affect their judgment. The relevant scene for this paper occurs shortly after the second vote and the surprising revelation that there are now two men in the room not yet ready to instantly convict the accused without at least studying the evidence more closely. This scene was chosen to study the dynamics of social influence, especially the influence of a lone dissenter on social conformity.
Any large dynamic group will naturally exhibit signs of either conscious or subconscious conformity. The psychological principle of conformity as it relates to social influence is basically an exertion on the will of another person to act in a manner that is not in accordance with one’s actual beliefs. Many different studies of conformity as a result of social influence have been conducted, revealing that almost all conformist responses to social influence can be narrowed down to three types: compliance, identification, and internalization.
The social influence at play in the scene is directly linked to the concept of the lone dissenter. At this point in the film, only one juror stands between the unanimous vote necessary to convict the accused. The lone dissenter concept harkens back to the Catholic Church practice of assigning a devil’s advocate who would speak in evidence against those who had been chosen for canonization as a saint; he was not meant to actually believe the candidate shouldn’t be canonized, but merely to offer hypothetical arguments against. The lone dissenting juror in the film serves the same purpose. In fact, as this sequence begins he excuses himself from voting and accedes to voting guilty himself if there is no one else willing to vote not guilty in a secret ballot.
The secret ballot is itself a vital instrument in the juror’s use of social influence. Conformity in the arena of voting tend to decrease when no one else is aware of one’s opinion. This stands in marked contract to the opening vote when several hands immediately raised in support of a guilty vote, whereas two or three hands went up more tentatively. The dissenting juror probably counted on a secret ballot providing a higher probability of someone else joining him.
The key social influence at work in this scene turns out to be identity. The second juror to vote not guilty is clearly not motivated either by the possibility of a reward or a punishment, nor does he appear to be concerned with being right. He even says himself that at that point he still believes in the probable guilt of the defendant. He also says that the reason he changed his vote is in part because he admired the lone dissenter’s strength to stand up to conformity even in the face of ridicule. He clearly has begun to look at the dissenter as a model.
The attractiveness of the dissenter is then made immediately more obvious by the rude and dismissive way that another juror leaves for the bathroom while he is still speaking. This behavior and the contrast between the desire to identify with the dissenting voice has been foreshadowed by several exchanges that have already set a course whereby most of the jurors representing the most outspoken opposition have been cast as either explicitly prejudiced, personally influence, or exhibiting near-total disinterest in the question of the accused’s actual guilt or innocence.
Part of this is created by the environment of the proceedings. The jury is forced to deliberate at close quarters, in a small room that appears to be suffering from stifling heat. Unpleasant circumstances tend to increase the chance for conformity and when the fact that these men are strangers to each other and will most likely never meet again is added to the mix, it becomes quite clear that the possibility of successfully using social influence rises.
The scene in 12 Angry Men in which the secret ballot is taken is, of course, the turning point in the film. From this point on, the rest of the jurors no longer are faced with just one dissenting voice. Rather than attempting to gang up on the one lone voice, there are now two that must be convinced. After a brief respite, once the jurors begin deliberating again, there is a noticeable change in the seriousness. Although two jurors are interrupted playing a game of tic-tac-toe, it is clearly indicated that the level of discourse in the deliberations rises substantially following the secret ballot.
The effectiveness of social influence begins to build in proportion to the number of people who are exerting. After the second ballot, the old man who voted not guilty the second time around receives his first significant scene in relation to deliberation of the evidence. Quite obviously his character’s move to identify with the lone dissenter is now meant to be established in the viewer’s mind. His speech is eloquent and moving, just as much at odds with the far less than eloquent speeches by the other jurors as they were with the lone dissenter. The scene in 12 Angry Men is a textbook example of how a lone dissenter can exert social influence under certain environmental conditions.
I don’t mean to brag, but for a long time I felt a kinship with Henry Fonda’s character in this film. In my family in particular, my hometown in a more general sense and the country at large to a certain degree, I have felt like a lone dissenter by suggesting that Pres. Bush lied to get public support for his war in Iraq, that he had no idea what to do when there, and that is generally speaking the single worst President in US history. I’ve been saying those things since 2001. While I’m not quite watching a unanimous turnaround like Fonda got, suffice to say it’s pretty darn close and I expect I’ll live long enough to one day see that unanimous agreement on what was at one time termed a stupid, ill-informed point of view.