I watched the classic film, 12 Angry Men, recently, and I was struck by the ways in which the film so accurately depicts what social psychology experiments reveal about people’s willingness to suspend their own thinking faculties to go along with the group [in particular, the Asch experiments, in which individuals deny their own senses to agree with the majority, demonstrating the lengths (no pun intended) to which people will go to conform].

In the movie, had one man’s commitment to integrity and reason not prevailed, another man, reasonably likely to have been innocent of the crime he was charged with, would have been electrocuted. It is not a surprise that only one man of twelve was willing to step out on the proverbial limb in a group vote in which he was the only dissenter, nor is it a surprise that some went along with the prevailing view without much thought – easily swayed and influenced.

We all know these characters. We all know people whose beliefs can be too easily altered by new ideas; others whose beliefs are so entrenched that reason and rationality cannot sway them; others who stand out as extremely clear-headed and models of critical thinking; others who don’t care enough to be bothered to think very hard for themselves and will follow the crowd no matter what; others whose deep emotional needs and pain influence their ability to think rationally. And most of us realize that there is a little bit of each of such characters in ourselves.

The challenge for each of us, I believe, is to strive to be like the character played by Henry Fonda, a man committed to truth and aware that truth is often elusive; a man unafraid of speaking his truth even when it differs from others; someone whose heart and mind work together toward a goal of integrity and honesty; a person whose mind is not so open his “brain falls out,” but who exemplifies open-mindedness.

This film is an excellent tool for any critical thinking or criminal justice course, as well as for a course in American History. Though fiction, it offers much food for thought and discussion. As a supplement to the social psychology films at the Heroic Imagination Project website, 12 Angry Men offers humane educators – those who wish to ensure that their students have the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be solutionaries for a just, compassionate world – an excellent opportunity to use film and culture to explore issues of character and choicemaking.

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach

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