Remember, You Can’t Refute a Bias

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Imagine that you have in front of you a Bernie Sanders supporter or a Donald Trump supporter. Go ahead and pick whichever one of those is opposite your own political views. Now, convince them that they’re wrong. Assuming that they’re true believers, and not in any way on the fence, you already know the result: It ain’t gonna happen. In fact, the more you argue, the more they seem to become committed and entrenched in their views. And the more you argue, the more your target becomes convinced that you are part of the problem, and are not a credible source of information.

This scenario is just an extreme version of the truism that commonly applies to biases: You can’t argue your way out of them, they aren’t necessarily supported by explicit reasons in the first place, we’re not likely to set them aside when we see better reasons, and they have the self-reinforcing tendency to become stronger and not weaker when they are attacked. So refutation does not tend to work. In this post, I’ll share some thoughts on why and what to do about it, because there are some more nuanced approaches that can work.

Why Don’t Arguments Work?

A legal education instills some habits. Perhaps the most important is the habit of thinking rationally, and believing that the better evidence and the better reasons should be convincing. I’ve had the chance to see many attorneys, especially those attending their first mock trials, have to sadly set aside that belief once they get a chance to watch the jurors deliberate. When jurors are committed to a bias — e.g., that corporations are evil, that individuals are wholly responsible for their own protection, or that lawsuits are generally frivolous, it isn’t a matter of simply giving reasons why that isn’t so.

Research backs this up. In past posts, I have written about studies, for example, showing that parents who have committed to either raise their children at home or via daycare are likely to interpret the data in a way that supports the choice they’ve already made, and other studies showing that reading research articles that refute your views on global warming tend to make the original beliefs stronger, especially when an audience is sophisticated.  Refutation doesn’t generally work because it doesn’t address the self-sealing nature of biases or the motivation that drives the process.

If Argument Doesn’t Work, What Does? 

In addressing a bias, what you are looking for is not a reason that it is wrong. Instead, you are looking for a factor that will reduce that bias’s salience in a given context. There are three techniques that I’ve mentioned in a recent article:

Awareness: Being aware of the possibility of a bias can help to pull your target out of habitual or reflective ways of thinking.

Meta-Cognition: Finding ways to make your target think about how they are thinking can help them take the longer and more thorough route to a decision.

Manner: The more you’re able to use tools to make your communication simple and easy, the more you’re reducing resistance and potentially escaping the bias.

One additional technique to add might be the most important:

Reframing: Make the issue about something that is more important than your target’s bias.

For example, one litigation technique that arguably works due to reframing is the “Reptile” method of trying Plaintiff’s cases. In addressing the “Hot Coffee” bias that presumes that a case is frivolous, the Reptile approach makes the case about something other than the plaintiff: It is about safety and community protection for all of us, not about one person’s misfortune. Viewed in that light, the Reptile strategy is an attempt to reframe around a more important value.

While there may not be any sure-fire cure for a bias, there are ways of responding. The response, generally, is not to say, “You’re wrong,” but to subtly change the focus.

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Image credit: 123rf.com, 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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