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12 Angry Men

How a lone dissenter can transform the opinions of a steadfast
majority

Dana Carion - 15406128
Bryan Kennedy - 15855492
Dave Yang - 14676067
The dynamics of group decision-making is the central focus in the film 12 Angry

Men. The film depicts a jury attempting to render a unanimous verdict in the murder trial

of a teenage boy. The process whereby the decision is reached illustrates a situation

where a minority transforms the opinion of a majority by exerting persuasive tactics and

demonstrating effective leadership.

The situational and behavioral elements of majority group processes were evident

from the onset of the film. A plethora of characteristics made this particular jury

especially prone to conformity: it was a fairly homogeneous group of men isolated within

a locked room (Film, 5:50), operating in a high stress atmosphere of heat and time

concerns, with pressure to come to a unanimous decision (Nemeth, Lecture 7/12/04;

Brown 133). Conformity was apparent upon the initial hand vote; we can infer that

informational and normative influences played a role. A freeze frame in the middle of the

hand vote revealed six men with their hands up, while the others looked around (Film

11:25; see Illustration 1). According to the theory of informational influence, those who

were less certain of the not-guilty position would have seen the original six raise their

hands and believed that “truth lies in numbers.” The characters Muscles and the

Immigrant likely fit into this camp, as they were slow to raise their hands and originally

sided with the prosecution. Normative influence was also evident in that others who

were on the fence about the issue may have sided with the initial majority in order to

avoid being seen as the “odd man out.” The Old Man certainly would fit in this category,

as he was one of the last to raise his hand and the first to be persuaded (Brown 132-135).

The behavior of those jurors who originally voted guilty showed blatant signs of

the limitations of decision-making based on majority processes (Nemeth, Lecture

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7/19/04). When these men first took turns explaining their position, a polarization effect

occurred; they gained added confidence in their position due to strength in numbers and

the full range of supportive evidence that comes from collective expression (Nemeth,

Lecture 7/29/04). There was a clear majority group sentiment that was expressed as the

eleven all focused their attention on Fonda, the lone dissenter (see Illustration 2). The

Adman illustrated it well when he said: “It’s up to the group of us to convince (Fonda)

that he’s wrong and we’re right” (Film, 15:33). When Fonda hypothesized new ways of

looking at “the facts,” the other jurors illustrated their disinterest by playing side games,

interrupting him, and shouting “Why is this important?!” Apparently, they were under the

influence of groupthink processes in that they were only interested in information

supporting their majority position (Nemeth, Lecture 7/28/04). When they gave such

evidence, they used the majority strategy, limiting their rationale to the “cold, hard facts”

presented by the prosecution. They spoke as if their evidence was unquestionably true

and did not attempt to challenge or reappraise the alternatives in any novel way.

Under majority influence, the decision making process showed symptoms of

groupthink (Nemeth, Lecture 7/27/04). Stereotyping of the opponent was apparent in the

prejudiced references to “those slum kids” (Film, 14:40), and there were pressures to

maintain conformity by mind-guards such as the juror who exclaimed, “Look, you voted

guilty, whose side are you on?” Mind-guards serve to encourage agreement by declaring

those who deviate from the majority as disloyal. Self-censorship also occurred when

people laughed at something the Adman said, so he didn’t finish his thought (Film,

1:01:15).

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Despite the strong pressures of the majority, Fonda’s presentation of unique

interpretations of the facts eventually stimulated divergent thinking in the majority

members. At one point, Mouse, while outwardly remaining in the majority, states that the

angle of the man’s stab wound had been bothering him, in that he didn’t think it could

have caused by the boy (Film, 1:12:30). The fact that he finally presented his idea to the

group illustrates the fact that minority influence tends to foster a wider search for

information from all sides (Nemeth, Lecture 7/13/04). As new information begins to

emerge various jurors show transformations in their non-verbal behavior. Smelly, at the

outset of the film, showed low-status kinesics through his posture, keeping his arms close

to his body (Nemeth, Lecture 7/9/04, Illustration 4). His gestures grew progressively

more confident as he shifted to the minority position. Proxemics also comes into play

with Mouse, who travels to Fonda’s side of the table when he begins to agree with their

position. This forms a visual of unity, reducing their interpersonal distances (Nemeth,

Lecture 7/9/04).

Fonda’s unwavering desire to discuss the issue led to the first majority-minority

shift, when the Old Man sided with him solely because he stood by his position (Film,

31:20). Interestingly enough, this shift was brought on by the group’s first anonymous

ballot, an effective way of reducing the effects of conformity (Nemeth, Lecture 7/13/04).

While the anonymous ballot led to a shift in the strength of the majority position,

in most studies of jury decision making, evidence suggest that 90% of verdicts coincide

with the original position of the majority (Nemeth, Lecture 7/12/04). In 12 Angry Men,

Fonda was able to eventually convert the opinions of those initial 11 jurors through his

strong leadership. At the outset, Fonda took on the role of self-appointed Devil’s

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Advocate and employed a democratic leadership style. That is, he outwardly expressed

no adherence to either position, but instead encouraged his fellow jurors to simply discuss

the case in an open-minded manner: “I don’t know if I believe (the boy’s story) or not,

maybe I don’t” (Brown, 2000, 94; Film, 12:40). This non-committal position serves to

shield Fonda from much of the hatred typically directed at lone dissenters (Nemeth,

Lecture 7/29/04). Studies have shown that such acquiescence gives subsequent

legitimacy (Hollander, 1958, 113) and lends credit to his emergence as a leader.

Over time, it becomes evident that Fonda truly believes in the not-guilty verdict,

and is thus an authentic dissenter. As studies on dissent show, an authentic dissenter (one

who believes in his case because he wants to) is significantly more effective at garnering

support and changing opinion than a Devil’s Advocate who is assigned to the same

position (Nemeth, Lecture 7/28/04). This shift from Devil’s Advocate to authentic

dissenter is evidenced by his becoming more outwardly aggressive. At the beginning of

the film he is seen slumping in his chair (see Illustration 3a), smiling frequently, and

speaking in a passive tone. As the film progresses and more jurors side with his case,

Fonda stands more often (see Illustration 3b), smiles less, and is more forceful in his

speech.

Fonda’s role as a leader also derives from his ability to identify with the other

jurors. Fonda’s character possesses the two orientations as identified by Bales (1950) that

parallel successful leadership: task and socio-emotional. The fact that Fonda’s character

is task-oriented is embodied in the scene where he crumples up a tic-tac-toe game the

other jurors were playing while he was talking. This action serves as an emphatic

reminder to abide to their objective by not trivializing the group’s role as jurors,

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reflecting the essence of a task-oriented leadership role (Film, 40:50). Furthermore, his

attention to the socio-emotional aspect of leadership is demonstrated by his offering of a

cup of water to the Old Man and by gratefully accepting a cough drop from Mouse.

More importantly, his statement that “prejudice obscures the truth” (Film, 1:20:44)

following a particularly distasteful outburst by Grumpy, results in the formation of a

common group identity, and allows Grumpy to gracefully enter the minority.

At the same time, Fonda’s strong leadership is contrasted with the poor leadership

posed by the majority. We witness that within the majority, leadership is undirected (there

is seemingly more than one “leader”), there is a lack of attention to procedures (multiple

members speaking out of turn), and members are unmindful of their objective (playing

game). Furthermore, there are many instances where the primary leaders within the group

prove themselves undesirable to the other majority group members. For example, when

Muscles threatened Angry for his attack on the Old Man, or when the entire group left the

table when Grumpy made his last stand of bigotry. These events create resentment and

alienation within the group, thereby reducing the membership of the initial group identity.

The combination of Fonda’s strong leadership and the defective formation of the initial

majority judgment offer the opportunity for the minority group to transform a majority

opinion.

The film 12 Angry Men demonstrates that a majority position and the processes

that support it are not infallible. The introduction of dissent has the ability to stimulate

divergent thinking that may challenge unquestioned opinions. This paper shows that

through effective leadership, a minority influence can go so far as to convince eleven

previously pro-guilty jurors of a reasonable doubt.

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Illustration 3

Fonda is slumped and appears unsure when he first declares his minority position. 12:08

Fonda stands tall and defends his position as more people side with his case. 40:10

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Illustration 1

Mouse and others (highlighted in blue) look to their peers for informational influence.
They are the first to side with Fonda as the film progresses. 11:10

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Illustration 2

All eyes are on Fonda when he does not side with the group’s decision. 11:20

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Illustration 4

Smelly demonstrated low-status posture when first asked for his opinion. 17:50

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