By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
When people laugh together, they're willing to disclose more to each other. A recent post in Psyblog highlights a study (Gray, Parkinson, & Dunbar, 2015) in which groups of strangers sat together to watch a video documentary, a boring clip about golf, or a comedian. Those who watched the comedian were more likely to share a laugh, and those who laughed together were more likely to self-disclose in a subsequent phase of the study. The authors concluded, "The results show that disclosed intimacy is significantly higher after laughter than in the control condition." Interestingly, however, the research participants did not believe they were sharing more due to to the shared laugh, but they were. "People in the study were more likely to disclose something personal about themselves after laughing together, although they didn’t realize it." The reason for this is that laughter triggers the release of positive hormones, endorphins, which play a role in forming the social bonds that facilitate intimacy. That makes sense, since scientists believe that smiles and laughter evolved as submissive gestures aimed at increasing attraction and decreasing perceptions of threat.
Voir dire is one setting where you definitely want the panelists to feel a reduced perception of threat and a willingness to engage in greater self-disclosure. If they aren't comfortable, they're less likely to admit to biases and other attitudes you want to learn about through questioning. That suggests that a shared laugh between counsel and potential jurors is just the ticket for breaking the ice and promoting greater disclosure. But it is tricky. When the venire members first enter the courtroom, they are likely awed by the formal setting, and when they first hear what the case is about, they are likely to see it as a serious matter. Add to that the fact that most attorneys are not natural comedians and there is every chance that your planned joke will fall flat and you'll end up looking a little desperate at the very time that you need to establish credibility with your future jurors. So that is the dilemma. "No jokes" is a good rule of thumb to apply, but that shouldn't prevent you from taking advantage of humor that presents itself in the situation or emerges from the panelists themselves. I believe that there are still a few things you can do to safely share an icebreaking laugh with the panel of potential jurors during voir dire.