Lisa Zunshine deposited Manipulating Metacognition in Witness for the Prosecution on MLA Commons 5 months, 4 weeks ago
This essay exemplifies a cognitive approach to literary and film studies, with particular emphasis on fictional reimagining of legal institutions. It draws on research of cognitive scientists who study metacognition—specifically, the difference between reflective and intuitive beliefs—to suggest that courtroom dramas, such as Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), can manipulate their viewers into believing something that they, on some level, know cannot be true. In this case, viewers accept the not guilty verdict by the jury even though “the facts in the case” are “simple” and point to the guilt of the defendant. I show how different versions of Witness for the Prosecution—from Agatha Christie’s original short story (1925) and her subsequent play based on that story (1953), to the Hollywood film (1957), and the BBC mini-series (2016)—trigger our reflective beliefs about the defendant’s innocence, so that we find the verdict satisfying (at least for a short while). I conclude by considering literary payoffs of this manipulation, especially in the context of a culture that subscribes to a view of the mind as, in principle, knowable, and thus readable by skillful others.