"Falsehood flies," Jonathan Swift wrote, "and the truth comes limping after it." Another version, attributed to Mark Twain, has the lie getting halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its shoes on. Both sentiments note the advantage that the false can sometimes have over the true. Modern social science continues to add to the mountain of evidence showing that even demonstrably false claims can be remarkably difficult to correct. When presented with evidence that contradicts a deeply-held belief, people often respond in a way that leaves them even more convinced of their original beliefs. What is at work is not just stubbornness or wishful thinking, but basic cognitive styles. Whether true or not, current beliefs hold the advantage of having much easier "processing fluency," which is another way of saying that they're sticky.
That stickiness is the focus of a recent article from three researchers from the University of Southern California entitled, "Making the Truth Stick and the Myths Fade: Lessons from Cognitive Psychology" (Schwartz, Newman & Leach, 2016). The article reviews the research and provides some scientifically-grounded recommendations on prying people away from false-but-sticky prior beliefs. They note that in deciding what to believe in the real world, people tend to ask themselves five questions:
- Do others believe it?
- Is there evidence to support it?
- Is it consistent with what I already believe?
- Does it hang together as a story?
- Does it come from a credible source?
To legal persuaders, some of those, for example, number 2 and 5, sound like the right questions: the standards the law would expect. But for each of them, there is a long or a short path people could take. They can answer the question logically and analytically, or they can -- more often -- answer it based on a "heuristic" shortcut rule of thumb. And taking the processing fluency into account, it turns out that even when people are willing to engage in the longer route, the shorter route makes the conclusion seem easy, familiar, obvious, valid, and true. "Regardless of which truth-criteria people draw on," the authors note, "easily processed information enjoys an advantage over information that is difficult to process. When information is easy to process it feels more familiar, widely shared, internally consistent, compatible with what else one believes, and more likely to come from a credible source." Litigation, of course, has its share of deeply-held myths -- corporations are generally evil, plaintiffs' cases are generally frivolous, etc. -- and when advocates are trying to counter those or other more case-specific beliefs, it can feel like you're fighting gravity. In this post, I will take a look at the five bases of belief discussed in the Schwartz, Newman and Leach article and share some of their thoughts on how to win back a bit of advantage for the truth.
Social Consensus: Do Others Believe it?
"When the truth is unclear," the authors write, "people often turn to social consensus as a gauge for what is likely to be correct." And that doesn't seem like a bad way to go. The problem is that we aren't very good at reading what that consensus is. For example, we mistake frequency for popularity. That means that one person on a jury repeating the same thought three times can contribute almost as much to the perceived consensus as three people sharing that same thought once. A small but vocal minority can easily seem like a majority. One implication for voir dire is that you don't want to give your unfavorable jurors too much of a microphone, and once you've learned that they've earned a strike, it is best for you if they're simply silent.
Support: Is There Plenty of Evidence to Support It?
I was just at a mock trial, watching in closed circuit as a mock juror opined that, "The plaintiff really had no evidence" on a central point. That was frustrating to the attorney who had just spent 90 minutes emphasizing that evidence. The problem was that the evidence was technical and hard to follow. "When thinking of evidence is made to feel difficult," the authors explain, "people conclude there is less of it, regardless of how much information they actually recall." So the challenge isn't just to provide evidence, or even sufficient evidence, but to provide evidence that is easy to think about and to recall. That is why it helps to use anecdotes and photographs. Even though they aren't necessarily evidence, they do make it easier to think about and recall the evidence.
Consistency: Is It Compatible With What I Already Believe?
Despite the authors' placement of this question third in line, this strikes me as the first and most basic question asked. We think and learn, not by adapting wholly new ideas, but by integrating new information into our present set of ideas. The most trusted litmus test, then, is going to be, "Is this consistent with what I already think?" Views that are inconsistent are processed less easily, and when processing is difficult it is accompanied by a negative affect, and approached with a motivation to discount or refute. But the authors note, "when processing is easy, on the other hand, people tend to nod along." While few litigators are blessed with a target audience that already agrees with everything, it is worth asking, "What general aspects of my case resonate with what my jury or judge are likely to already believe?"
Coherence: Does It Tell a Story that Hangs Together?
Information needs to be coherent, but what highly-analytical types like lawyers sometimes don't understand, is that the number one test for coherence is a narrative test. The authors explain, "when details are presented as part of a narrative and individual elements fit together in a coherent frame, people are more likely to think it is true." It seems more likely to be accurate because it seems more complete and more finished. There's a reason you were given story problems when you learned math: stories are easier to grasp. When an argument is presented in story form, that narrative structure makes it easier to process, which also makes the information feel more familiar and more valid.
Credibility: Does It Come from a Credible Source?
This one seems to jibe quite well with our witness-centered trial system: People should believe what comes from credible sources. The only problem is that credibility assessment isn't strictly, or even primarily, a logical exercise. Credibility can be assessed by looking at education and experience, but as the authors note, "credibility judgments can also be made by relying on one's feelings about the source." Are we comfortable while listening to the source? Do we feel that the witness is not just a reliable source of information, but a good person as well? Witnesses who are relaxed and conversational are often seen as more credible simply because they're less distracting and easier to listen to.
To the authors, the bottom line is this: "The truth is often more complicated than the myth, which usually involves considerable simplification. This puts the truth at a disadvantage because it is harder to process, understand, and remember. It is therefore important to present true information in highly-accessible ways, making it as easy to process as process."