Language and Implicit Attributions in the Nuremberg Trials Analyzing Prosecutors’and Defense Attorneys’Closing Speeches

Authors

  • JEANNETTE SCHMID,

    1. Jeannette Schmid obtained her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Frankfurt/Main, Germany, and is a research associate in the Social Psychology Department at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Klaus Fiedler obtained his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Giessen, Germany, and is professor of social psychology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.
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  • KLAUS FIEDLER

    1. Jeannette Schmid obtained her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Frankfurt/Main, Germany, and is a research associate in the Social Psychology Department at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Klaus Fiedler obtained his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Giessen, Germany, and is professor of social psychology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.
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  • This research was supported by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Fi 294/10–1). Patricia Cattelani and Gun Semin gave helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. We would also like to thank Judith Asbeck, Stefanie Nickel, and Eva Walther for their invaluable work in coding the material. Address correspondence to Jeannette Schmid, Psychologisches Institut, Hauptstrasse 47–51, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany. E-mail: zdy9@psi-svl.psi.uni-heidelberg.de.

Abstract

The attributional implications of prosecutors’and defense attorneys’language strategies were investigated, using the protocols of the historical Nuremberg trials. Statements from both perspectives about four German Nazi generals were coded at the sentence level with regard to three aspects: the reference of the sentence subject to the defendant (specific vs. diffuse), the linguistic category of the sentence predicate (action verbs, state verbs, adjectives), and the evaluative tone of the utterance (negative, neutral, positive). Distinct language patterns were demonstrated for the opposing parties, reflecting theoretical predictions about the attributional implications of specific linguistic tools. Apart from the fact that the same defendant's behavior was described in more positive terms by defense attorneys than prosecutors, the two sides used a number of less obtrusive, more subtle strategies. In particular, defense attorneys tended to raise positive defendant attributes to a higher level of linguistic abstractness, avoided direct person references for negative statements, and projected unavoidable negative statements onto the prosecution. In contrast, prosecutors produced the highest rate of action verbs, which implicitly suggest internal attributions of responsibility. In addition to direct negative references to the individual defendant, they also used global references to the defendant's Nazi in-group to convey the inherently negative meaning of the defendant's behavior. In general, these findings mirror previous results on the role of language in interpersonal and intergroup settings.

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