Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


People Are More Gullible Than We Expect

The fun series "Jury Duty" goes to unnecessary lengths to fool someone.

Key points

  • "Jury Duty" follows a man who believes he is serving as a juror in a trial, but the trial is fake and everyone else is an actor.
  • Most people would be fooled with less deception because we are inclined to go with the crowd, especially when we expect others to know more.
  • In one replicated study, the majority of passersby looked up at nothing when a group of people had stopped to look up at the same point.
Source: Freevee
Ronald Gladden and "James Marsden" in "Jury Duty"
Source: Freevee

There’s a late-season episode of Community where the main characters meet to discuss how they will get revenge on a sleazy grifter who conned them. After watching the movie The Sting to get ideas, they talk about what they learned:

“How did they grift him?”

“Well, they basically made a fake building and hired 1,000 people to cooperate in perfect secrecy.”

That’s essentially what the producers of Freevee’s recent show Jury Duty did. They created a fake courthouse, staged a fake trial, and had every person—from the witnesses to the jurors—played by actors. Except for one: Ronald Gladden, seemingly the most affable guy on the planet, who believes he’s actually serving as a juror in a real trial.

And why did they do this? For the lulz I guess? The result is one of the weirdest things I’ve seen on TV in a while, and this is the same year that gave us the bizarre Paul T. Goldman. But weird doesn’t mean bad. The series is often very funny, owing especially to James Marsden, who plays an exaggerated narcissistic version of himself on the jury. And, despite the prank show-like premise of the series, the producers don’t treat Ronald like the butt of a joke, but rather like the star of a grand Truman Show-like experiment. (That comparison may cause you to see the producers as well-intentioned or exploitative, maybe both.) As a result, it ends in a surprisingly sweet way.

Jury Duty is, at its core, a sitcom. But the unique draw of the series is that by putting Ronald into bizarre or uncomfortable situations to see how he’ll react, it encourages us to ask ourselves what we would do. If we ended up on a sequestered jury with James Marsden in which two of the jurors started having an affair, would we start to suspect that something fishy was going on? Would we just go along with things?

Probably, yeah. And it has more to do with our susceptibility to social influence than it does with the extreme lengths the Jury Duty producers went to perfectly simulate a trial.

We look to others for information

Sometimes we go along with others just to fit in. But sometimes we go along because we assume other people know something we don’t. Psychologists call this informational social influence.

A simple example of this comes from a 1969 study by Stanley Milgram, Leonard Bickman, and Lawrence Berkowitz. They observed about 1400 pedestrians as they walked along a 50-foot stretch of sidewalk in New York City. At coordinated moments, a group of people congregated on the sidewalk, stopped, and looked up at the same point across the street for 60 seconds, then immediately dispersed. The researchers recorded how many passersby stopped and how many looked up themselves.

When just one person stopped and looked up, 4 percent of passersby stopped and 41 percent looked up. These percentages gradually increased until the number of people in the initial group looking up increased to 15, at which point 40 percent of passersby stopped and 86 percent of passersby looked up.

These results have since been replicated. In 2012, researchers repeated the experiment with about 2800 pedestrians in a public area in Oxford. And in 2018, researchers repeated the experiment in a VR environment in which the groups of people looking up were virtual characters. The exact percentages varied but the trends in all cases were the same: the more people that initially stopped to look up, the more likely it was that others did the same.

In hindsight, these results may seem so obvious they don’t even require explanation. Passersby probably stopped and looked because they assumed everyone else was looking at something interesting. They assumed the lookers knew something they didn’t.

Informational social influence is stronger in unfamiliar situations

Two factors make informational social influence especially strong: being in an unfamiliar situation and being around others with relevant expertise. In both cases, we are much more likely to defer to the judgment and knowledge of others and just “go along with things.”

Imagine you’re in Ronald’s situation on Jury Duty. You’re a first-time juror with no past courtroom or legal experience. You’re surrounded by people who have spent their entire careers in courtrooms—the judge, the bailiff, the attorneys—and they’re all acting like what’s happening is basically routine. The whole ordeal might seem odd to you, but if everyone else is treating it like an everyday situation, why shouldn’t you?

The Jury Duty producers went to such elaborate lengths because they were trying to control the narrative and force Ronald into funny and awkward situations. To that end, they succeeded, and the results are both entertaining and kind of impressive. But, if they had merely wanted to trick someone into thinking they were really serving on a jury in a fake trial, they could have succeeded by doing far, far less and letting our natural propensity to social influence do the rest.


You can watch the episodes on Freevee; it’s also available on Amazon Prime Video

More from Alan Jern Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today