Source of the following article Persuasive Litigator.

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm: 

Change Your Mind

If you’ve ever suffered through an extended interpersonal argument, either as a protagonist or as an observer, you might be justifiably skeptical about its usefulness. The common experience is that no one is going to budge. I’ve been there as well, and that is why I was intrigued when reading a study that I recently came across on effective argument. “One might think that the the outcome is trivially ‘no one ever changes their mind,’ since people can be amazingly resistant to evidence contravening their beliefs,” the authors wrote in the first footnote, “But take heart, change does occur, as we shall show.” The study (Tan et al., 2016) further piqued my curiosity when I looked at the methodology. The authors focus on social media, taking advantage of the opportunity to observe attempts at interpersonal persuasion on a large scale. They looked at the social media platform Reddit, and specifically a community called “ChangeMyView,” a group that boasted more than 211,000 members as of the article’s publication date. At “ChangeMyView,” the goal is for people to take a position, state their reasoning, invite counterarguments, and then indicate if their minds have been changed or not. As a condition of entry, users “accept that they may be wrong or want help changing their view” (a position that is admirable in its intellectual humility). Looking at all discussions occurring within that community during a four-month period, the team was able to quantify the language factors that successfully predicted attitude change. 

It is not surprising that most of the time, 70 percent of the time actually, people stuck with their original beliefs. But that leaves the 30 percent, and within that slice, the authors found a high ability to predict argument effectiveness. “Persuasive arguments,” they conclude, “are characterized by interesting patterns of interation dynamics.” Naturally, the setting within this Reddit community is different than the settings for legal persuasion. For one, people join by choice and announce their willingness to be persuaded. In addition, the argument is an interactive conversation with an active opportunity to review and rebut the written arguments coming from one’s adversaries. But the research is still interesting in focusing on the human nature to resist, and to sometimes accept, a contrary message. If there are verbal tactics that work in an online setting, they are worth at least considering in a courtroom context. In this post, I will focus on the top implications that stood out to me when I reviewed the study. Here are 10 features of an argument that tend to make it more likely to lead to genuine attitude change. 

1.  A Special Setting

One overarching impression of the study is that genuine attitude change is likely to be more common in “ChangeMyView” than in other settings, including other social media settings. Both the group’s name and the conditions of participation emphasize a situational openness to the idea that you might be wrong and a situational willingness to explicitly change your views. Of course, all situations will not have that. But a courtroom is another situation that might. Starting with voir dire, the common message is that the court of law is a place where you strive to set aside personal bias, purposefully hear both sides, keep an open mind, and try to withhold judgement until all facts are in. That effort will never be completely successful, but the study provides a reminder that even the intention and the effort can be helpful. 

2.  Repeated Interactions

The researchers found few examples of one comment being clearly responsible for a change in position. “Changing someone’s opinion is a complex process,” they write, “often involving repeated interactions between the participants.” So it really isn’t about one great mind-changing fact or argument, it is about an accumulation of points, gradually increasing the target’s discomfort with their previous position, until finally that position is softened or overturned. Drawing from our experience with mock trials, we often find that, looking back at it, jurors are unable to identify the exact moment they changed their minds or the exact argument that did the trick. It is gradual. Of course the persuasion in a trial or a mock trial is going to be “interactive” only in the sense that jurors are internally reacting and counterarguing, but the implication is that legal persuaders should focus on an accumulation and not on a single winning shot. 

3.  Early Engagement

In looking at the successful argument threads on “ChangeMyView,” the researchers found that the earlier in time a particular respondent answered an original post, the more likely it is that the response will be successful in changing the mind of the original poster. Focusing on the entry time of the engagement, the researchers conclude that “earlier entry time is still more favorable.” That implies that legal persuaders should attempt to engage the argument as early as possible. That is why the somewhat quaint old notion of holding off on all arguments until closing arguments is ineffective and impractical. Just putting the information out there and only drawing the conclusions at the end is going to minimize your chances of actually changing any minds. So while courtroom advocates might have to hold off on the explicit “Vote for me because of this” kinds of appeals, they can and should start thinking about the persuasiveness of their stories, themes, and facts as early as voir dire. 

4.  Argument Diversity

It takes more than one argument and, it turns out, it takes more than one type of argument. Successful persuasion is more likely when the person or people challenging the original position use a greater variety of themes in their responses. “Persuasive arguments were more diverse,” the researchers noted, because the greater diversity created a greater likelihood that the target for that argument would encounter an argument that would resonate with their own way of thinking. For legal persuaders, that implies that they should think broadly. Beyond the arguments that will work with your natural supporters, think also about arguments that have the best chance of softening your harshest critics. So while plaintiffs might include some sympathy appeals to work on those who are motivated by sympathy, they should also make sure to include appeals that might work with the harder-nosed, ‘Just the facts’-oriented defense jurors. 

5.  Coordinated Style

The researchers noted a stylistic similarity between the original posts and the messages that successfully challenged the original posters to change their minds: “Challengers coordinate their style with the original poster.” That might mean that they use similar words, similar tone, similar intensity. That approach might work because it lowers barriers — after all, someone who sounds like me cannot be all wrong, right? To litigators, this suggests that they should listen very carefully in voir dire, and when taking a deposition or conducting cross-examination as well. By bringing your language and tone into sync with your target, you are maximizing your chance at successful influence.  

6.  Less Intensity Initially

The researchers did find that the intensity or the emotional component of the argument mattered, and that “successful arguments are more sentiment-laden.” However, the timing does seem to matter. “In terms of arousal,” they write, “successful arguments begin by using calmer words.” This may be because too aggressive an attack out of the gate just invites mental counterargument from the target: They get defensive and just dig in deeper. By striking a less passionate tone at the beginning, however, you may be inviting that person to hear you out and to potentially reconsider their views. In an opening statement, a legal advocate needs to start out in a way that is thematic and attention-getting. But if that can be done in a way that is calm and less intense, then it may be less threatening and more effective. 

7.  Personal Reference

Another language difference found by the researchers had to do with personal pronouns. They found that “persuasive arguments use a significantly larger absolute number of personal pronouns.” Words like “you” or “me” are more common in effective arguments. That means that instead of referring to the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” you are better off making eye contact with individual jurors and simply saying “You” as if you are addressing each one individually.  

8.  Concreteness 

Successful arguments were more specific and more definite. They had more concreteness, which the researchers defined as “the degree to which a word denotes something perceptible” sharing the example of “hamburger vs. Justice.” So even though the law might prefer the latter, and may base itself on hundreds of other abstractions, a jury is more likely to be persuaded if you can boil the argument down to language that is specific and physical. A good rule of thumb: If you could draw a picture of it, it is concrete, and if you cannot, it is too abstract. Another similar finding from the research is that successful arguments include more definite articles (“the” instead of “a”). This, the authors note, is another form of concreteness, and “suggests that specificity is important in persuasive arguments.” 

9.  Examples

Part of being concrete is illustrating your point with situations and not just abstract reasons. That means using examples. The researchers found, “The absolute number of such example markers is significantly higher in persuasive arguments.” That stands to reason, since concrete illustrations are easier to think about than general and abstract reasoning. A greater use of examples increases the chances of presenting your target with an example that fits their own experience or that cannot be easily refuted. 

10.  Evidence

This last one is probably a little reassuring in a courtroom context where evidence is supposed to matter. The researchers found that it matters in online persuasion as well: “Persuasive arguments use consistently more links” citing external evidence. In a legal setting with a judge telling you that the evidence should be all that matters, one can reasonably expect this relationship to be even stronger in a courtroom. And, while it might seem obvious, it is also an important reminder that, as much as we focus on stories, themes, and persuasive techniques, these are all ways of making your evidence more effective and more memorable, but they are never a substitute for the evidence itself. 


Other Posts on Language Effectiveness: 


Tan, C., Niculae, V., Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., & Lee, L. (2016, April). Winning arguments: Interaction dynamics and persuasion strategies in good-faith online discussions. In Proceedings of the 25th International Conference on World Wide Web (pp. 613-624). International World Wide Web Conferences Steering Committee.

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