In Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, the film revolves around the aftermath of a murder trial: the responsibility of deliberating over an accused inner-city teen’s fateful verdict is swept aside for twelve jurors, a guilty verdict indicating punishment by death. While the ultimate goal of the jury is to end up with a unanimous consensus on the defendant’s verdict, one juror exudes skepticism over the details of the case.
Whereas the majority of the men initially find the defendant unquestionably guilty, as they speculate more deeply about the case, we see the effects of prejudice and conformity upon human behavior unravel amongst the group. Thus, the film’s fixation on how individuals think and formulate opinions allows us to observe how cascades are used as a mechanism to influence others upon what they deem to be the truth.
The most opinionated jurors verbosely express their views on the case: Juror 3 refers to the case as “open-and-shut”; Juror 10 paints the boy accused of murder, as well as others of “his kind,” with one broad stroke, claiming, “They were born liars.” Those who are uncertain about what they think seem to initially rely on the men who are surer of themselves. This dynamic of uncertain jurors deferring to the thinking of others who seem more certain than they are encapsulates the concept of information cascades.
During the preliminary vote amongst the jurors, they all simultaneously vote by a show of hands. The majority (eleven of the men) are in favor of labeling the defendant as “guilty”; only one man, Juror 8, holds out and votes “not guilty.” Juror 8’s position is not an assertion of what he directly believes to be true, but rather is an assertion of uncertainty.
Ultimately, he uses this platform to convince others to be less sure about coming to a quick answer or ignorant conclusion about the defendant. As arguments in favor of the accused boy being “not guilty” become proven and more convincing, a few of the jurors begin to resist those who persist with the opposing view. By instilling logic and facts from the case’s evidence into the discussion, Juror 8 counters the cascade that assumes the defendant is guilty. This resistance starts a cascade in the opposite direction, where the jurors begin to suppose that the defendant is innocent.
Another aspect the film touches upon is the hazardousness of both simultaneous and sequential decision-making. When the men decide to vote simultaneously by a show of hands, they each take turns, one-by-one, orally justifying their stance on the case. Through this particular process, each uncertain juror is swayed by what other jurors claim before him until everyone reiterates opinions from similar schools of thought: “I just think he’s guilty”; “The lady said she saw him do it.” Later on, Juror 8 calls for a secret written ballot to gather an updated consensus on the case verdict.
Without the pressure of instantaneous judgment from others, many start to vote “not guilty,” not only based on their discussion of logic and facts, but with the incentive to save their personal reputations and demonstrate their being justice-filled men. As more men make an effort to think critically about the case, the majority of the group begins to follow this trend instead of agreeing with a “guilty” verdict by convenience.
Therefore, as a shift occurs in what was formerly the majority opinion – that the verdict of the accused boy should be “guilty,” we see a reputational cascade work in different ways. Most men vote the defendant as “guilty” in the beginning of the film, because they are unsure or are deliberately suppressing their support of the fact that he could be innocent in order to fit in. As Juror 8 encourages the men to view the case more in depth, we see people’s fears of being judged for speaking their minds unwind. They initiate a reputational cascade where they voice their opinions irrespective of what they believe would earn them likeability from others.
In this regard, we see that ignorance and uncertainty are the best soil for a cascade. Aside from Juror 8, most jurors vote “guilty,” because it seems to be the more dominant consensus. This impression of dominance is due to the fact that most men who are uncertain are relying on others who are more confident about what they think (even if they may be wrong).
Juror 3 epitomizes the concept of an availability cascade. As a father with a tumultuous relationship with his son, he leverages this personal baggage as a motive to nail the accused boy on trial. Thus, he determines how likely the defendant is guilty based on how readily possibilities of him being in the wrong come to mind; by drawing upon the grudge he feels towards his son in parallel with the defendant of the case, he creates an illusory truth – that the boy is unarguably guilty for murder, even though it has not been strictly proven. Despite the growing evidence that refutes his position against the boy, he becomes entrenched in his views and reaches wildly for any argument to support his conviction; he becomes blinded from considering other facts of the case that contradict his conceived truth.
Ultimately, in the end, the consensus flips: all twelve men reach a verdict of the accused boy being “not guilty,” albeit the truth of the case is never identified. As Juror 8 states, “I don’t really know what the truth is. I don’t suppose anybody will ever really know...” By looking at the variations of cascades in which the jurors shape their thoughts about the case, we can see that locating the objective truth itself is not necessarily the most important part goal of the cascade phenomenon. Rather, it is how the pursuit for what we deem to be the truth affects human behavior that is the most intriguing and is so vividly captured by the film.