WHAT DONALD TRUMP’S SUPPORTERS CAN TEACH US ABOUT PERSUASION

In 1933 the Marx Brothers were featured in a movie Duck Soup where Chico Marx says: “Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” In the face of repeated documented lies and misrepresentations on significant matters,  polls indicate that President Trumps approval ratings have increased rather than decreased among his supporters. How can that be and of what importance is that to us as trial lawyers?

WE ARE NOT THINKING MACHINES. WE ARE FEELING MACHINES THAT THINK

There are multiple answers to the question as to why facts don’t seem to matter to Mr Trumps supporters. The primary answer has been explained by Christopher Graves, who is the founder of the Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Science and a behavioral science commentator. It starts with the famous case of Phineas Gage, who in 1848 suffered an injury while working on the railroad, when a steel rod was driven through his eye and out to the top of his head. He survived and he was studied by scientists over his life time including studies long after.  Research of people who have been brain damaged in their emotional brain area have consistently demonstrated an inability to make decisions and think rationally. That’s because they are lacking the emotional capacity of their brain due to the damage suffered. These studies have clearly shown an inability to come to decisions and exercise rational logic.

Neuroscientists with the assistance of MRI technology have established that humans do not make decisions by purely cognitive  thinking or reason oriented brain function. Instead there is an interplay of the emotional center of the brain (the limbic system) Every moment of our day our brain stamps an emotion onto everything we experience as a marker. This helps this project into the future the ability to decide what to do when we encounter a similar situation again. Every experience has an emotional connection. We are incapable of making decisions without an emotional component. .

CONFIRMATION BIAS

Studies done have revealed that when the subject involves an issue of significance to us,  we resist changing our minds when confronted by contrary evidence. In fact, we  cling even more firmly to our originally held beliefs. In a study done in 2006 the “backfire effect” was documented. This, and other  research has shown the persistence of belief in the face of factual contradictions. In addition, increased efforts to persuade us otherwise actually strengthens our original conclusion. Other studies have shown one that attempts to debunk false myths can in fact reinforce them by simply repeating the untruth. A 2005 study in the Journal of Consumer Research on “How Warnings About False Claims Become Recommendations” demonstrate this fact. By simply repeating the untruth the more likely it is the person believes it to be true.

How should we present our information? Studies show that people are more likely to accept information if it is presented unemotionally, in graphs and are asked to recall an experience that made them feel good about themselves.  The visual imaging of recalling  involves the subconscious mind making an emotional connection supporting acceptance.

The fact is that people resist abandoning a false belief unless they have a compelling alternative explanation. It’s been established that unless great care is taken, any effort to debunk misinformation can inadvertently reinforce the very myths one seeks to correct. The more you repeat it, the more it is seen as true. In that regard, keep in mind that the subconscious mind does not register negative communication, only positive. Therefore, statements like” I’m not a crook” are registered in the subconscious mind as “I am a crook.” On the other hand, positive statements like “I am an honest person” are registered subconsciously. Framing the statement is critical in this regard.

FEAR

We are all aware of the concept of the primitive or Reptile brain and our reaction to threats of injury or survival. Appeals to fear – immigration crime etc – trigger a self protection reaction in us. This is a factor in politics and jury selection. Science has  unequivocally shown that people who are conservative have a stronger psychological reaction to stimuli perceived as threatening.  In fact in 2014 an fMRI study found that it is possible to predict whether someone is more liberal or conservative my studying brain activity while they view threatening images. The conservative thinkers had a greater fear reaction than liberals. These brain responses are automatic and not influenced by logical reason. They are beyond  the control of the conscious mind and operate subconsciously.

Another aspect of this mental process is identification of someone trustworthy or a protector. If someone feels they have found a protector, they identify with them. They also become less concerned over actions and words from this person that might otherwise be seen as highly offensive.

CONCLUSION

As plaintiff trial lawyers we are called upon to exercise the greatest skill we are capable of in representing our clients. Too many trial lawyers cling to the idea that cases should be presented in a logical, objective and unemotional manner in order to appeal to the rational and logical mind of jurors. That’s because their law school training was that people are rational and have the capacity to exclude emotion in decision making.  Nothing could be further from reality. We need to understand how people make decisions. We are obligated to know the impact of communication principles which have been clearly established through modern f MRI research and neuroscience studies. The same psychological and communication principles that explain political support for a political leader in the face of contrary facts are principles we need to understand. Remember, communication is not what we say but what the other person understood.

About Paul Luvera

Plaintiff trial lawyer for 50 years. Past President of the Inner Circle of Advocates & Washington State Trial Lawyers Association. Member American Board of Trial Advocates, American College of Trial Lawyers, International Academy, International Society of Barristers, member of the National Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame & speaker at Spence Trial College
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