Modern life and communications tend to put up quite a few barriers to concentration. It's easy to be distracted. Let’s say you are putting together an important memo when some other alternate possibilities creep into your awareness: Maybe you should check your calendar really quickly…or maybe see if any new emails have arrived in the last few minutes…or perhaps just a little reading of online news or blog posts! And before you know it, the focused hour of work in the office you hoped to put into the memo has turned into an unfocused 15 minutes stretched out over 60. One reason for that challenge in concentrating might be the office itself, and specifically the fact that you are alone. According to one recent study (Desender, Beurms & Van den Bussche, 2016), one very effective means of concentrating is to simply be around others who are concentrating as well.

To study the contagious effects of concentration, the researchers simply seated study participants side by side in order to perform a series of tasks. When the task would suddenly become more difficult for one member of the pair and require greater mental effort, the increased concentration exhibited by that participant would transfer to the other member of the pair. Even though the second person’s tasks had not changed, they suddenly began concentrating more effectively simply because they were seated next to someone who was concentrating. The authors write, “Simply performing a task next to a person who exerts a lot of effort in a task will make you do the same.” The researchers offer the possibility that this may be due to simple modeling: “It could be that this does not reflect a truly deliberate decision, but instead a more automatic tendency to imitate people, as is the case with yawning, rubbing your face, shaking your foot, and facial expressions.” This ability to create better attention through simple nonverbal copying has some important implications both for trial preparation as well as courtroom persuasion.

Concentrated Trial Preparation: The “War Room” Is Better

Some of the run up to trial involves solitary work in an office – it’s hard to draft a motion by committee, for example. But other trial prep work is collective and centered around a common location. Most of the trials I’ve been involved in, and nearly all of the large ones, have included a war room. It is to the trial what the kitchen is to your house: The place where everyone meets and where the actual work gets done. The partners and associates working the case usually come and go, while the boxes and the paralegals are typically there to stay. In my experience, though, the best crunch-time work, creative brainstorming and strategizing takes place in that room, and it may be due to the contagious nature of a particular type of attention.

Concentrated Trial Persuasion: Show What You Want Jurors to Copy

Modeling is not just a strategy for working. Given that advocates want a particular kind of attention from their audience, it can be a way of persuading as well. Whether from the lectern or from the witness box, presenters should account for the human tendency to copy.

A post in Psyblog notes that the contagious effects of concentration noted in the study is just one of many nonverbal behaviors that humans are known to copy: Happiness, anxiety, rudeness, laughter, and risk-taking also tend to be copied in communication from a sender to a receiver. That suggests that persuaders ought to be consciously modeling the attitude you want your audience to adopt. For the attorney delivering an opening or a closing, or conducting an examination, or for the witness in the box, that means modeling the attention you want the jury to give. Show skepticism when you want them to be skeptical, precision when you want them to be precise, and alertness and animation when you want them to wake up. It isn’t a perfect one-to-one, but the engaged presenter is more likely to be engaging, just as the bored advocate is more likely to be boring.

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Other Post on Mental Hacks:

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Desender, K., Beurms, S., & Van den Bussche, E. (2015). Is mental effort exertion contagious?. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 1-8.