By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Language is the cognitive and social invention that made it possible for us to resolve conflicts with reason rather than force. Language begat law, and law in turn begat litigation. Lawyers work with words, and particularly those who are in the trial business understand very well that language isn't neutral. Instead, it puts its thumb on the scale by conveying effects beyond literal meaning. One dimension of the power of words lies in valence -- the association of a given word as positive or negative. Years ago, theorists (Boucher & Osgood, 1969) offered up the aptly-named "Pollyanna Hypothesis" that communication tends toward the positive, and that it is not simply a human choice to "look on the bright side" but a bias embedded in our language system. Now, this year, a truly massive study of languages around the world seems to offer very compelling support for the hypothesis of a "universal positivity bias."
Covered in a recent post in Psyblog, the new study was conducted on a monumental scale, focusing on billions of words used in various contexts within multiple languages. It looked at words at varying levels of common use, and how people reacted to those words as positive or negative. The result offers broad confirmation of the "Pollyanna Hypothesis:" In use, language does indeed show a strong bias toward the positive. That finding provides an important reminder to litigators: Mind your valence. While many aspects of advocacy might push you toward the negative (what is false, what is unfair, what is harmful), there is a strong natural advantage in orienting your case toward the positive (What is true, what is fair, what is beneficial). In this post, I'll take a look at this new language study and share three different ways this emphasis on the positive should be used by trial lawyers.