By: Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm –
Never heard of “Alpha” and “Omega” strategies for persuasion? Until recently, neither had I. But after reading the research, it has changed my way of looking at persuasion. The terms are based on something called the “approach-avoidance” model (Knowles & Linn, 2004), suggesting that to an audience, every position you might advocate has attributes that attract (“approach”), and attributes that repel (“avoidance”). Persuasion is accomplished, naturally enough, by making the approach stronger than the avoidance. Now, you might think, “that is obvious — of course audiences see a pro and a con,” but the real takeaway for advocates is the reminder that you need to speak to both sides of the equation. Intuitively, we might expect that we make a persuasive case in court by assembling all of the evidence, arguments, and other appeals that show why we are right and they are wrong. But that all speaks to the benefits of our position — the approach forces. Those are the “Alpha” strategies that give a judge or jury an incentive (greater credibility or merit) for siding with us. But what about the avoidance forces, the forces that cause an audience to resist our message? If we aren’t also using the “Omega” strategies to decrease that resistance, then we may just be building a convincing case that our audience rejects nonetheless for their own reasons.
In this post, I’ll be referring back to the opening statements in the second corruption trial of former Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich, to illustrate the difference between Alpha and Omega strategies, and to underscore the message that complete persuasion needs to employ both.
To provide a little more explanation of the approach-avoidance perspective, the authors refer to Kurt Lewin’s illustration of a child at the beach who’s ball has floated into the surf: She obviously likes the ball and wants it back (approach forces), but she is also afraid due to the danger posed by the waves (avoidance forces). There is a parallel between that and any situation in which an audience is asked to adopt a new belief or behavior. It wouldn’t work to persuade the child by just focusing on how good a ball it is, and how fun it would be to have the ball back. Without addressing the reasons for avoidance, persuasion just doesn’t happen. Yet despite this, Knowles and Linn build an excellent case that the great traditions of research and philosophy of persuasion tend to focus on approach and Alpha strategies — how to make your message more desirable — instead of focusing on avoidance, Omega strategies, and ways to decrease resistance to persuasion. Fundamentally, we should persuade not just by adding benefits, but by reducing barriers as well.
Clearly, resistance to persuasion plays an important role in legal cases. Jurors enter the panel with all kinds of assumptions about litigation and social responsibility. They know that attorneys are highly trained and highly paid advocates, and they don’t want to be played. They know that the parties stand to personally advance or protect their fortunes based on the verdict rendered, and they don’t want to reward self-interest. So legal persuasion, in particular, faces some important resistance hurdles that effective litigators need to address.
To provide an illustration, let’s go once again to the Rod Blagojevich trial. The prosecution has a fairly simple case: While governor, Blagojevich tried to trade favors, including a U.S. Senate appointment, in exchange for campaign contributions and other rewards, and we have it on tape. The defense, in its own opening statement, has emphasized the themes that Mr. Blagojevich ought not be convicted for “mere words,” or “a sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and that at the end of the day, “Rod got nothing.” We can recognize those as the straight up, Alpha strategies, saying, “they are wrong, we are right” in order to increase the appeal of the Defendant’s case.
To address the other side, the trial team needs to look at resistance. Apart from the defense themes, and apart from the possibility that jurors might simply believe the evidence from the prosecution, why else would jurors resist Blagojevich’s case? In the unique context of this case, they might be having a thought that is also probably influencing the current Casey Anthony jury, “would I be a fool — or be thought a fool — to acquit someone who is so widely thought to be guilty?” That thought, conscious or unconscious, could cause jurors to selectively remember and rely on some arguments rather than others, and could cause them to withhold credibility from the defense. So in response to that likelihood, the defense opening also included the Omega strategy of reframing a defense verdict by asking jurors to “have the courage” to look at the facts alone. In this narrative, jurors aren’t being duped or being foolish to listen to the embattled governor’s defense, they are being brave!
Another source of resistance for the Blagojevich jurors is the thought that, in acquitting, they could be allowing political corruption to continue. In response to that, jurors are likely to hear in closing: you are protecting our political process, not undermining it, by trying Rod Blagojevich only on the evidence and a narrow legal standard. Both appeals work to balance the overall message by approaching persuasion not just as a task of amassing reasons, but also as a process of reducing barriers.
Ultimately, a persuader might be tempted to think of resistance as the enemy. But resistance is a little like friction: it is an opposing force, to be sure, but without friction between your car’s tires and the surface of the road, for example, you wouldn’t be going anywhere. Without knowing how your audience will resist your message, your persuasive message isn’t likely to move forward either. For that reason, one of the many benefits of testing your case using a community attitude survey, a focus group, or a mock trial, is the opportunity to learn both the Alpha and the Omega of your jury’s potential response.
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