Preventing Fight-or-Flight Responses During Witness Testimony - Part 1

Part 1 of 2

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Witnesses who respond from a place of emotion rather than a place of rational cognition not only inhibit defense counsel from effectively defending the case but also create dangerous economic vulnerabilities. Regardless of the witness’ intelligence or the facts of the case, a defense witness who is attempting to out-argue a professional trial lawyer is woefully outmatched and represents a clear threat to the defense.

Without extensive preparation, witnesses are easily susceptible to being thwarted by their own emotions, attempting to take matters into their own hands, frequently becoming frustrated, argumentative, or easily moved to offer long-winded answers that can ultimately be used against them. Traditional witness preparation does not prepare witnesses for how to counter neuropsychological manipulation, which can hinder a witness's ability to control emotion and cause a fight-or-flight response.

As witness performance tops the list of causative factors for nuclear verdicts, it’s imperative for defense attorneys to prevent fight-or-flight responses during witness testimony, particularly during deposition. Courtroom Sciences provides sophisticated neuro-cognitive training that will allow the witness to be simultaneously effective and prevent them from making errors that could devastate your case.

How does amygdala hijack negatively impact witnesses during testimony?

Skilled cross-examiners will often use psychological “threats” to induce an amygdala hijack in a witness, threats such as aggression, humiliation, and confusion. These threats can cause a witness to depart from logical cognition and regress into survival cognition, which will result in defensive responses that typically come across as evasive, defensive, and argumentative, and expose the witness to further attack.

What is an Amygdala Hijack?

While the amygdala is intended to protect us from danger, it can also lead a person to react irrationally. The term ‘amygdala hijack’ was coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ to explain a situation where the amygdala overtakes the prefrontal cortex, and the resulting emotional response is both immediate and overwhelming. 

The amygdala plays a prominent role in regulating emotion and is understood to be the part of the brain that drives the “fight-or-flight” response, which is why an amygdala hijack is also referred to as an emotional hijack. When the amygdala perceives a potential threat, it communicates that threat to the prefrontal cortex, where it is evaluated, and then signals to the amygdala whether or not a fight-or-flight response is necessary. Common psychological “threats” that may be used to trigger this response include fear, aggression, humiliation, and confusion. 

If the fight-or-flight response is triggered, a number of events follow in rapid succession, as the body releases stress hormones, increasing a person's heart rate and elevating blood pressure, among other responses. Consequently, when this response is engaged, rational or higher-level cognition is abandoned, and a person reverts to a more basic survival cognition. 

Negative Effects of an Amygdala Hijack

While the fight-or-flight response may have been necessary for survival, it is less advantageous when it is triggered by the plaintiff’s counsel during cross-examination. An amygdala hijack may cause a witness to engage in irrational or inappropriate behavior, which may include offering responses that come across as argumentative, defensive, or evasive. Additionally, after the emotional hijack has subsided, the witness may experience feelings of embarrassment and regret.

If opposing counsel can trigger an amygdala hijack in a defense witness, it can cause devastating results in deposition or trial, derailing the witness's testimony by causing them to react in an emotional fight-or-flight response. When a witness experiences an amygdala hijacking, they will likely feel an emotional need to argue, the fight response, or to justify or explain, the flight response, exposing themselves to further attack. Due to the fact that poor deposition performance is a primary factor in the causes for nuclear verdicts, a witness who experiences emotional hijacking at deposition creates significant economic vulnerability for the defense. 

Preventing Fight-or-Flight Responses

Despite the fact that an amygdala hijack is an automatic response, a witness can learn to avoid the fight-or-flight response and maintain prefrontal cortex processing during testimony through sophisticated neuro-cognitive training. Active cognitive reappraisal skills are the key to maintaining prefrontal cortex activation and preventing the fight-or-flight response. 

This deliberate emotional regulation strategy involves actively reinterpreting a negative stimulus as a neutral stimulus. During deposition or trial, it would enable the witness to detect an emotional threat from opposing counsel, calmly identify the threat as an attempt to bait the witness and deliver effective testimony. 

Witnesses who lack the proper cognitive and emotional training can very quickly be baited into an amygdala hijack, making errors that can devastate your case. Secure your case, and prevent nuclear outcomes by preparing witnesses with a psychology-based witness training program, resulting in a composed and prepared witness. At Courtroom Sciences, our psychology experts deliver a proven neuro-cognitive witness effectiveness training program designed to help you achieve superior litigation outcomes. Speak with one of our experts to get started. 

Key Takeaways

●  Without extensive neuro-cognitive training, witnesses are easily susceptible to an amygdala hijack. 

●  An amygdala hijack may cause a witness to engage in irrational or inappropriate behavior.

●  When a witness experiences amygdala hijacking, they will likely feel an emotional need to argue, justify, explain, exposing themselves and subsequent witnesses, to further attack.

●  Active cognitive reappraisal skills are the key to preventing fight-or-flight responses. 

●  Through sophisticated neuro-cognitive training, psychology experts at Courtroom Sciences prepare witnesses to thwart amygdala attacks.

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