Friday, May 18, 2012

The Science of Persuasion

Aesop might have made a good lawyer if he had been born in a different century. In fact, he was probably a better lawyer than most present-day lawyers are.

Lawyers are sometimes identified as people who argue really well - or at least a lot. No one likes that type of lawyer, though I might be one. When I was a kid, people told me I'd make a good lawyer because I loved to argue. I wonder why I wasn't very popular in high school?

Anyway, arguing is not the same thing as persuading. An arguer might make excellent logical debate points, but debaters don't convince many people to change the way they act or think. People who are persuasive can change other's minds.

It is very difficult for people to change their own minds. When people are forced to confront new information that challenges their existing ideas, beliefs, or values they experience discomfort. Psychologists call that discomfort "cognitive dissonance." People are driven to reduce the discomfort and resolve the dissonance. One of the ways people reduce dissonance and make themselves feel better is by simply changing either the new information or the old information. They lie to themselves without realizing it and become so convinced of the lie that they don't remember that changed the truth.

One of Aesop's most famous fables illustrates the way people resolve cognitive dissonance. In the story of the fox and the grapes, a fox comes upon some delicious grapes.

"ONE hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. 'Just the things to quench my thirst,' quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: 'I am sure they are sour.'"
This is where the expression "sour grapes" comes from. At the beginning of the story, the fox thinks the grapes are "Just the thing to quench my thirst." But when he cannot have them, he has to confront contradictory ideas: he wants them, but he cannot have them. Rather than living with this dissonance, he changes the first idea. He never wanted them in the first place because they were probably sour. Of course, the grapes never changed. He lied to himself without realizing it.

Everyone does this. Even four-year olds and monkeys lie to themselves to construct a more consonant reality. It is easy to see when someone else does this, but we can rarely see when we are doing it to ourselves.

Because they are people, juries and prosecutors and judges must lie to themselves to reduce cognitive dissonance. They don't like cognitive dissonance any better than the rest of us.

Which is why Aesop would have been a good lawyer. Aesop didn't argue directly. If he had, his stories wouldn't continue to be as popular as they are. His stories are powerful because they help us accept new ideas by minimizing the cognitive dissonance we feel when we hear them. He persuaded people.

Rather than saying explicitly, "Sometimes you act like you don't want something because you can't have it," he told a simple little story about a fox. Who would ever feel defensive about a fox? Aesop isn't saying that you sometimes lie to yourself to resolve cognitive dissonance. No. He is saying the evil foxes lie to themselves sometimes. But then I see other people acting like the fox. And then someone accuses me of "sour grapes." Maybe I am persuaded because I accepted the idea of sour grapes in concept before I was accused of it personally.

Stories are powerful. They can persuade us of things we would never accept in the abstract. Lawyers who can advocate for their clients with powerful stories are more likely to be successful than the ones who just argue logical points all day.

If you are looking for a lawyer, look for one who can tell good stories. And if you are a lawyer, be sneaky. Use your stories like trojan horses to get past your opponent's defenses.


Anonymous said...

This is good Josh. But maybe I'm too logical for my own good. The story from the second lawyer would have bothered me because I would feel as though the lawyer was insulting my intelligence by telling me a story, assuming I wouldn't get the straight logic. Although it's also interesting to me that evidence about a person is trying to be given by circumstances that don't necessarily pertain to the case. He is a criminal so he is automatically guilty? Or, he has bad friends, so that makes him a bad person? I know that wasn't the point of the article, but I thought it would be fun to add my two sense. You can toss them now. :) -Brian Vogelesang

Joshua Baron said...


Thanks for the comment. I think I agree with you. That story is probably a bad example. Can you think of one that would be a better illustration?


jack said...

This is good Josh. But maybe I'm too logical for my own good. The story from the second lawyer would have bothered me because
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Cristian rowlard said...

This is good thanks you

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