Experts, Cultivate Awe

Holland & Hart - Persuasion Strategies

Remember Carl Sagan and the original show Cosmos? It was a beloved series in the late 70’s, not just for its accessible explanations of something as complex as the history of the universe, but also for its ability to evoke a sense of wonder. As a gifted science communicator, Sagan used that sense of wonder as an entry point to create a desire to learn more about the science. The same for Neil DeGrasse Tyson who took up the Cosmos mantle nearly forty years later in 2014. The common factor is a focus on a sense of awe: a greater awareness and wonder at what we don’t yet know. That greater awareness on the limits of knowledge creates a motivation to fill in the gaps and to learn more.

That is not just intuitive, it is also what the research says. Jonathon McPhetres, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Rochester reports on a series of studies on that feeling of awe in the Journal Cognition and Emotion (McPhetres, 2019). The research shows that by tapping into a feeling of awe, communicators of science are not just conveying knowledge, but are also addressing the motivation to know more. As McPhetres noted in a ScienceDaily release, “The joy of science lies in pondering the magnificent and seeking answers to the unknown.” The courtroom expert’s concerns are likely to be more prosaic than the cosmos addressed by Sagan and Tyson. But the ability to proceed from a sense of wonder or awe might be a common ingredient.

The Research: Awe Creates Motivation to Learn More

In his research, McPhetres described the feeling of awe as a perception of vastness as well as a need to accommodate our knowledge to that. He conducted four studies that manipulated the experience of awe in order to assess whether that leads to a greater interest in science. The studies showed that inducing awe does lead to greater awareness of gaps in information and motivates a search for greater understanding. 

The implications for those seeking to teach science in all areas, including the courtroom, is to think not just about the information itself, but about the “Wow” factor that inspires interest. As he noted in ScienceDaily, “It might be as simple as showing students really awesome videos of the things they are about to learn in physics and calculus. It might be as complicated as giving students an experience which really challenges their level of knowledge about chemistry before you dive into counting electrons.”

“To me this says that humans are curious, wondrous, growth-oriented creatures who are interested in learning about our place in the universe,” McPhetres continues. “We love to see new things, to experience the unknown, and to learn about our world. We all have this experience in common.”

The Application: How an Expert Might Induce Awe

Not many legal experts get to talk about the cosmos. But many to most experts do get to talk about interesting subjects, or subjects that can be made interesting.

For example, consider an expert in a products case who is trying to explain the way that an agricultural chemical might disrupt the microbiome and cause unforeseen consequences. 

This is a teaspoon of soil. But, of course, it isn’t just soil. It is a microbiome – a complete community of microorganisms. How many? Well, if this teaspoon came from a reasonably healthy and fertile garden, then there is as many as a billion microorganisms in the teaspoon. Yes, that’s “billion” with a “b.” In less than a cup of soil, you would have more microorganisms than people on this planet. 

And, most of the time, the billion beasts living together in this teaspoon are getting along just fine. Why? Because they’re in balance. Because they’re a community with structure and interactions that we can often only guess at. It is a complex system. They make it work, and that keeps it all healthy.

It works that way, until something — something foreign to this community — is introduced from the outside. Maybe it kills all of one kind of bacteria and that causes an explosion in the populations of fungi: Like deer might outstrip their environment when there aren’t any wolves. 

For us all to understand what Ag-Corp’s chemical did in this case, we need to start by appreciating the amazing community in this teaspoon, and understanding what can knock it out of balance.

Obviously, it is the information and the support that matters in expert testimony. But for jurors and judges to understand, trust, believe and use that information, there needs to be a motivational component. So experts, get out there and be awesome…in the literal sense of inspiring awe. 


McPhetres, J. (2019). Oh, the things you don’t know: awe promotes awareness of knowledge gaps and science interest. Cognition and Emotion, 1-17. DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2019.1585331

Image credit:, used under license 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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