By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
"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.