12 Angry Men; Prejudice, Social Conformity


How interesting can movies where 12 men sitting in a room and talking get?

12 Angry Men is definitely one of the more interesting ones (not that I know any other).

12 jurors were called upon to deliberate on an alleged murder of a father by his son, in the slums of New York. The case seemed clear-cut in the beginning, and most of the jurors were ready to immediately vote guilty without much discussion, so they can go back to their businesses.

However, in the US criminal justice system, jurors must vote unanimously to produce a verdict. Even if there is just one jury disagreeing with the rest, they must continue discussing until they all agree, or the jury is declared hung (after a long time with no progress towards an agreement).

In this case, one of the jurors voted “not guilty” in the preliminary ballot, so they were forced, with much frustration, to continue discussing the case to try to convince the lone juror, who, it seems like, was just playing devil’s advocate, because he believed something as serious as the murder case should be given more thought.

As they further deliberated, it became immediately clear that most of them were very biased against the teenager because of his background of having grown up in the slum. Some were very obvious –

You’re not gonna tell me that we’re supposed to believe this kid, knowing what he is. Listen, I’ve lived among them all my life. You can’t believe a word they say. You know that. I mean, they’re born liars.

while some were for subtle, for example, by easily believing the story of a middle class witness instead of the story told by the teenager, even though neither were very plausible. Eventually, at the initially disagreeing juror’s insistence, they looked into each piece of supporting evidence in detail, and discovered that all of them were circumstantial, not reliable, or plain impossible. They eventually, with a lot of difficulties, agreed on a verdict of “not guilty” (which just means there is “reasonable doubt”).

Humans are designed by evolution to prefer to agree with others and conform to societal norms. Obviously, that varies significantly between individuals and also cultures (collectivistic vs individualistic), but in general, humans like harmony.

The evolutionary reason for that is, humans are a social animal that require others to survive, and being agreeable helps with forming social bonds and mutually altruistic relationships. We are also genetically “programmed” to reject those that try to get “free rides” and working by themselves, and as a result, they aren’t usually as successful in human societies, and so there is selection pressure towards agreeability in humans.

It sounds like a good thing, and it is, for the most part. However, being agreeable also leads to prejudices and discrimination. That is why it’s so hard to be non-judgemental and be completely open minded – because evolution worked very hard to make sure we aren’t.

This movie portrayed it perfectly. Very cool movie. Highly recommended.