By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Have you ever found yourself in an argument where the other side just keeps digging in deeper? Instead of conceding, agreeing, or even just softening their stance, they're becoming even more committed to a position that (you think) you have shown to be incorrect? The more facts and reasons you give, the harder they commit to a contrary position. If you've ever found yourself in that position, then congratulations: You've learned one of the first principles of human psychology. We want to believe that reasons and evidence work, and when someone sees that their beliefs are based on error, they'll change. However, that does not account for motivated reasoning or the human need for cognitive consistency. People select positions for many reasons, not just rational reasons, and people want to feel that they are consistent in their positions. Fundamentally, people want to think that they're right.
For the target of persuasion, that motivation can serve as a kind of cage. If new or contrary information is just met with a strong wish to deny it, then they can never break out of the cell of their own opinions. This matters in litigation, since potential jurors can have strong and inflexible views on parties, issues, stories, and the case itself once they've heard a little about it. The existence of peremptory strikes is a recognition of our belief that there are some people we are just never going to be able to persuade. So, if you run out of strikes and end up with an attitudinally adverse partisan on your panel, does that mean your chances of persuading that person are nil? More broadly, does it mean persuading skeptics is doomed? Not necessarily. There is a technique that is both simple and profound in implications. Covered in a recent article in Quartz Media, "A Philospher's 350-year-old Trick to Get People to Change Their Minds Is Now Backed Up by Psychologists," the technique is supported by both ancient and modern persuasion experts. And it is a principle that applies well to courtroom persuasion: If you want to persuade someone, especially someone who is initially skeptical of your position, you need to meet them where they live. In other words, you need to start by validating their current beliefs ('Based on what you've heard, you're correct') and then revising and supplementing those beliefs ('...but you have not yet heard everything'). This post will discuss the implications of that and share an example.