Stealing Thunder

In the context of the courtroom, “stealing thunder” refers to revealing damaging information first so as to diffuse its impact. If damaging evidence is going to be brought out by one’s adversary, an attorney may choose to reveal this information first to the judge and/or jury, thereby stealing the adversary’s thunder. This entry describes research on the effectiveness of stealing thunder and also explores why stealing thunder works.

Trial lawyers have concerned themselves with several questions related to stealing thunder, and the answers are usually a matter of conjecture based on learned opinion and experience.

First, do attorneys use this tactic? The answer, based on interviews, informal surveys, trial advocacy books, and observations of courtroom trials, is that they do. In fact, stealing thunder appears to be used unquestioningly in criminal and civil trials, by defense, prosecution, and plaintiff’s attorneys.

A second question might be, “Why do attorneys use it?” Again, based more on trial advocacy books and interviews than actual research (of which there appears to be none by trial lawyers themselves), the answer appears to be that it works for two reasons: (1) to give the appearance of honesty and being “up front” with the triers of fact and (2) to allow the attorney who steals thunder to frame the evidence in such a manner that it diminishes its importance. In other words, attorneys can put their own spin on the potentially damaging information.

A third question that attorneys may ask is, “What can be done to counteract the stealing thunder tactic?” Little or no information appears on this topic when reading trial advocacy books.

Note that none of the questions asks whether stealing thunder works. The empirical research started with this particular question.

Research Evidence

Effectiveness

Research has demonstrated that stealing thunder is an effective way to minimize or eliminate the impact of incriminating information in many legal contexts. Most legal experts are already aware of its benefits, even if they are not aware of the reasons why it works, and use it regularly in court.

In mock trial studies, researchers have found that attorneys can benefit by stealing thunder. The benefit is that stealing thunder diminishes the impact (usually measured by percentage of guilty verdicts or probability of guilt ratings) when compared with a “thunder” condition in which the attorney’s adversary brings out the information as evidence. Sometimes, the tactic works so well that it brings verdicts to the same level as that with no thunder at all, but effectiveness is usually simply defined in terms of observing less damage than the comparable thunder condition.

Stealing thunder has been found to be successful with U.S. populations for criminal and civil trials and in Australia with criminal trials, suggesting that stealing thunder enjoys generality across trial type and across at least two (albeit Western) cultures. The timing of stealing thunder has not been shown to be pivotal; that is, it can occur at the beginning of the trial or later on, as long as it precedes the adversary’s revelation. Also, the adversary does not need to reveal the damaging information at all for stealing thunder to work. There have been no differences between stealing thunder with and without the opposition’s discussion of it. Finally, the “thunder” can range from something rather minor to something seemingly integral and damning. Thus far, there has been no research setting an upper limit on how damaging the thunder can be for it to be successfully stolen. In a mock court case involving homicide resulting from reckless driving, stealing thunder was effective at reducing the damaging information even when the defendant admitted to drinking alcohol and veering into the oncoming traffic lane.

It should also be noted that stealing thunder works in other nonlegal domains too, such as in politics (with mock voters and journalists) and interpersonal impression formation.

Counteracting the Stealing Thunder Tactic

So far, the only successful attempt to counteract the stealing thunder tactic is to, post hoc, reveal the tactic’s use on the jury. If mock jurors were told during closing arguments that the other attorney manipulated their opinions through the use of the stealing thunder tactic, stealing the thunder no longer dissuaded them from its damaging implications.

Why Does Stealing Thunder Work?

Recent research suggests that there are several paths by which stealing thunder operates. First, in line with trial attorney intuition, research supports that the thunder stealer enjoys heightened impressions of honesty and credibility. The reasoning would go like this: If the attorney is willing to admit such damaging information without being forced into it, then surely the attorney can be trusted to present an objective and honest case.

Are attorneys also correct in assuming that stealing thunder works because it allows the revealer to put his or her own spin on the information, lessening its importance? To this question, the answer from available research is no; self-favorably framing the information is not necessary for it to be an effective tactic. It may help, but the available evidence is not even supportive of this notion. It appears that simply stating the incriminating information bluntly, without any spin or admonishment, is sufficient for the tactic to do its work on (mock) jurors. What apparently happens is that the mock jurors, without encouragement by the revealing attorney, put a diminishing spin on the information themselves when the attorney does not. Here, the reasoning goes like this: What I just heard surprises me because it appears to hurt the attorney’s case. But this doesn’t make sense, so it must not really be all that bad after all. Thus, the research suggests that mock jurors work on the meaning of the “thunderous evidence,” so that it is not so thunderous.

Thus, two very different processes appear to be involved, both of which assist in making stealing thunder an effective strategy. One is the relatively heuristic form of processing that involves simply the impression of truthfulness that then casts a positive glow on the attorney, the client, and the attorney’s case. The other process is a rather effortful and creative process of twisting the negative information, such that it takes on a meaning that renders it harmless. This process, presumably, takes effort and thought.

References:

  1. Dolnik, L., Case, T. I., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Stealing thunder as a courtroom tactic revisited: Processes and boundaries. Law and Human Behavior, 27, 265-285.
  2. Howard, M. A., Brewer, N., & Williams, K. D. (2006). How processing resources shape the influence of stealing thunder on mock-juror verdicts. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 13, 60-66.
  3. Williams, K. D., Bourgeois, M., & Croyle, R. T. (1993). The effects of stealing thunder in criminal and civil trials. Law and Human Behavior, 17, 597-609.
  4. Williams, K. D., & Dolnik, L. (2001). Revealing the worst first: Stealing thunder as a social influence strategy. In J. Forgas & K. D. Williams (Eds.), Social influence processes: Direct and indirect influences (pp. 213-231). New York: The Psychology Press.

Return to the overview of Trial Consulting in Forensic Psychology.