October 6, 2017

Don’t Mix up the Do’s and the Don’ts

Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:

There are so many reasons why it is good to make a list, I could make a list of them (and actually, I did). But, safe to say, lists are ubiquitous in communication. We use them for shopping, for things we need to do, and steps we need to take. Mentally, we like the neat compartments of a discrete set of tasks or phases. The list can often take the form of the familiar “Do’s and Don’ts.” In product cases, for example, there are the sets of best practices for designing, testing, and marketing a product. In an employment case, there are the listed requirements and restrictions in the employment policies and manual. Or in a patent, there’s the list of claims and elements that must or must not be included. Ultimately, at the end of the case, there is the list of ultimate do’s or don’ts for the jury: the verdict form.

Usually these lists include both steps that are framed as action (do’s) and those framed as inaction (don’ts). We might see them as more or less equivalent. At the same time, there is some research suggesting that we are better off making them more consistent. In other words, try to stick with do’s or stick with don’ts, but the mixture is less streamlined and less influential than the consistent version. Before leaving the house, you might think, “I should feed the dog, take the newspaper in, don’t forget to set the alarm, and don’t leave any electronics running,” but you’re better off flipping those last two so they’re also “do’s” and not “don’ts:” Set the alarm and turn off electronics. That might seem like a small and artificial difference, but the research suggests that it is better to stick within a single frame (action or inaction) rather than moving back and forth. In this post I will share the details on that research, and I won’t neglect to also share (Okay, I will also share) some implications on what this means to legal persuaders.

The Research: Why Consistent Polarity Is Better

Researchers at the University of Illinois conducted a study described in a ScienceDaily release. The researchers (Albarracín et al, 2017) looked at messages about health, and found that those that mix the do’s and don’ts were not as effective as those that just aligned one way or the other. The lead author, psychology professor  Dolores Albarracin, explained: “Telling someone to increase exercise while decreasing their fat intake isn’t nearly as effective, as shown in behavioral and clinical outcomes,” she said. “It’s better to say ‘Increase exercise and increase the amount of vegetables you eat’ than ‘Increase exercise and decrease fat intake.'”

The Implication: Bring It into Alignment

It is a simple idea, and one that falls in line with the common advice in communication to keep it simple. Even when you know that any listener who is fluent in the language can easily distinguish and comprehend both the “do’s” and the “don’ts,” it is still solid advice to reduce the cognitive complexity. Making something easy to follow also ends up making it a little easier to believe.

So when presenting any list that you want your audience to remember, accept, and use, then you should make it parallel. Choosing a parallel style isn’t just good grammar, it is good (and easy) communication. This applies to your ‘safe product’ process, your ‘good employee’ requirements, and to your ‘infringing product’ list, as well as to any list of reasons or considerations that you are placing before your judge or jury.

The ultimate list, of course, is the list of actions of the verdict form. While you may not have complete control over the way the questions themselves are phrased, you do have some strategic choice in the polarities of how you frame each question. Ultimately, are you framing your preferred stance for your decision makers as action or avoidance of action: Is it ‘vote for us’ or is it ‘Don’t vote for them’? As I’ve written before, emotions tend to play a role with a feeling of sadness tending to motivate inaction, and a feeling of anger tending to motivate action. As a defendant, for example, you might feel like inaction is your preferred frame, and often it is, but there might also be times where you will want to frame a defense verdict as a positive act, for example, against frivolous lawsuits or in favor of personal responsibility or the power of a contract.

So the ultimate advice: Do have a list, and don’t mix up the tenses.  Or, here’s the corrected version: Do have a list and do keep it consistent.

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Other Posts on Organizing Your Message: 

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Albarracín, D.; Wilson, K; Chan, M. S.; Durantini, M., Sanchez, F. (2017). Action and inaction in multi-behaviour recommendations: a meta-analysis of lifestyle interventionsHealth Psychology Review, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2017.1369140

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