Masks in court: understanding the real lesson | Holland & Hart – Persuasion Strategies

As we begin to take stock and conduct research on the effects on pandemic adaptations, it is important to keep in mind one key principle: research on pandemic adaptations is not just on pandemic adaptations. In almost all cases, the focus will also be on broader communication issues and on the core functions of the courts, even in normal times. One such example is the focus on the effects of masks on the ability to assess witnesses and other people in the courtroom. Before the pandemic, I think it was the assumption that masking a potential witness or juror would cut to the heart of the ability to fully assess and believe that person. This likely contributed to why many courts simply suspended jury trials when the public blackout was in effect.

Over time, however, it became clearer that there was little reason to believe the masks would impede credibility assessment, and at least some reason to believe it might. to help this. A recent analytical research paper (Vrij & Hartwig, 2021) makes this argument. Psychologists from the UK and New York have reviewed the current literature to answer the question of whether masks in the courtroom interfere with credibility assessment. Our current knowledge leads us to the conclusion that, despite our beliefs about nonverbal communication, looking at someone’s face does not reliably increase our ability to see honesty or dishonesty, and lie detection does not. verbal fluctuates around heads or tails levels. Indeed, being forced to focus on words The masked witness instead encourages reliance on better clues, and thus leads to better lie detection. In this article, I will examine three implications of this, from the most specific to the broadest.

Specifically: A Lesson for Pandemic Communication

As the pandemic continues to end in a choppy fashion, case levels are once again rising slightly across the country. However, many people have been without a mask in public for a year or more and show no signs of returning. Many of us are dining out again, attending concerts and flying barefaced in overcrowded planes. That said, some counties are considering or reinstating mask guidelines. It seems likely that the effect of health measures such as mask-wearing will continue to be an issue for the courts during this pandemic and the next.

The research paper did not conduct a new study, and it is clear that there is a need for an experimental comparison of masked and unmasked control ratings. The only previous study, which I have written about before, focused on religious masking and showed exactly what the theorist would expect: diverting attention from less reliable nonverbal cues to verbal cues and more reliable content, evaluate a masked cookie transported a improved ability to determine the reliability of communication. Adding to the larger findings of nonverbal indeterminacy, Vrij and Hartwig argue that courts should not assume that masks are a barrier to communication: “It does not appear that measures aimed at countering the spread of the COVID-19 virus 19 (or any other virus that spreads in a similar way) will have a negative impact on observers.

More broadly: applications to online communication

The beauty of holding a trial or testimony online, of course, is that masks become unnecessary. At the same time, many beliefs about the presumed superiority of in-person communication center on nonverbal communication: we believe we can read about a person better when we are in person. But is it true? Again, much applied research remains to be done, but we currently have no good reason to believe that virtual communication is necessarily worse. Depending on the location and configuration of the camera, the view of the remote witness could be worse, but it could also be better, with a closer focus on the face, for example. But the most important point is that those non-verbal clues that we think we have better access to in person are not reliable tools for assessing a witness’s credibility. The authors note, “We conclude that virtual courtroom as an alternative to in-person court proceedings will also not negatively impact jurors’ lie detection ability.”

More broadly: a gap between popular beliefs and science

The last point is probably the most important: don’t trust something just because it’s a long-held opinion. The authors refer to a “pan-cultural belief that non-verbal behavior reveals deception”. This is called “behavioral bias,” and it goes beyond just detecting deception, but the holistic assessment of others. After all, in court, we don’t just expect jurors to be lie detectors, we expect them to hear the whole story, including the evidence, and make decisions on which is meaningful, reasonable, legal and fair. It depends on a good assessment of communication. But if you’ve heard the claim that 93% of communication is nonverbal, then you’ve heard a pretty gross distortion of research from a study that never sought to explain how much meaning communication carries. verbal versus non-verbal communication, and whose own author (Albert Mehrabian) has disavowed this interpretation. In all fields, those who want to better understand and apply the art of legal communication must distinguish between popular wisdom and social science proper. We don’t get most of our meaning from decoding nonverbal tics, it’s a much bigger picture than that.


Vrij, A., & Hartwig, M. (2021). Deception and lie detection in the courtroom: the effect of defendants wearing medical masks. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, ten(3), 392-399.

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