Whenever I contemplate the strengths of the other side of a case, I feel the fingernails on the chalkboard. It just hurts to even think about it.
Overwhelmingly, though, the research says . . .
The instinct to paper over the weaknesses in our argument is wrong—so long as we counter the criticism.
Every argument has at least two sides, even if sometimes, we’re not prepared to admit it. But in the heat of battle many attorneys present their own side of the argument as though there were no alternative. Jurors are bombarded daily with one-sided arguments and they generally distrust the message / messenger. Issues like climate change, Middle East policy, health care coverage, and presidential selections all invite one-sided presentations. We may instinctively avoid drawing attention to our side’s weaknesses for fear of undermining our own point of view.
The Case for Counter-Arguments: Do the data provide any comfort for our fears?
Psychologists have compared one-sided and two-sided arguments to see which are the most persuasive in different contexts. University of Illinois researcher Daniel O’Keefe (Communication Yearbook, 22, pp. 209-249) collected the results of 107 different studies on sidedness and persuasion covering 50 years of research and including over 20,000 subjects. This type of work is called a meta-analysis, which is not a study in and of itself, but a collection of other studies to find any commonalities among them.
The results of this meta-analysis are, well, persuasive. What he found was that:
- Two-sided arguments are more persuasive than their one-sided equivalents.
- This was true across different types of persuasive messages and with varied audiences.
- Proviso Alert!
- This result is only true when counter-arguments are raised to refute the opposition’s points.
- Two-sided arguments that don’t refute the opposing view can be significantly less persuasive than a comparable one-sided argument.
If attorneys bring up opposing arguments and then shoot them down, not only is the jury more likely to be swayed, but there is a corresponding boost to your credibility.
O’Keefe looked for any exceptions to these results:
- Sympathetic audience: it was thought that one-sided arguments are more effective if the audience is already sympathetic (“Preaching to the choir”). O’Keefe found no evidence for this; even a sympathetic audience is more convinced by a two-sided argument.
- Low educational level: no evidence exists that people with lower educational levels are more persuaded by a one-sided message.
- Order of presentation of the counter-argument: it doesn’t appear to matter whether counter-arguments are introduced at the start, at the end, or mixed in; as long as the opposition points are refuted, persuasiveness increases.
So, no matter how attractive your facts sound to you and no matter how you cannot conceive that there is any other way to see your case, remember that jurors know you are in court because there are two sides to the story. They can easily discount your message unless you acknowledge and counter the other side specifically.
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