By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Trial lawyers and consultants know how important it is to boil it down, and tend to agree with the three points famously made by Henry David Thoreau: "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" Our main reason for doing so, however, might be a little bit too simple. It is not just that simpler messages are more likely to be understood by a harried judge or a lay jury. The simpler claim is also more likely to be considered true. "Occam's Razor," or the principle that the simplest explanations are often the best, is now buttressed by a line of research on "cognitive fluency," -- or more colloquially, "truthiness" -- demonstrating that simplicity determines veracity. As Katy Waldman wrote recently in Slate, "The less effort it takes to process a factual claim, the more accurate it seems." That advice runs counter to what litigators might assume in thinking, "The more arguments and evidence I can pile up in favor of a claim, the more accurate it seems." We would like to think so, but as the research results pile up, it seems clear: Truthiness wins.
That line of research is summarized in a recent Washington Post story written by Eryn Newman, a postdoctoral fellow in cognitive psychology at the University of California at Irvine. Summarizing her own research, as well as studies conducted by others, she shares several scenarios where people can be convinced simply by reducing cognitive effort. The simple idea is more comprehensible, but it also sticks in the mind better because it seems more familiar and more like something we already know and trust. For litigators, this perspective carries some very profound implications. You are not just dumbing it down so jurors can follow your line of argument. Instead, you ought to be simplifying in order to select and frame your case and arguments in a way that conserves your decision makers' cognitive effort.