In a recent Psychology Today blog, Sam Sommers explores why Penn State fans would hold a pep rally on Joe Paterno’s lawn despite allegations suggesting he turned a blind-eye towards child rape. It is easy to dismiss these people as rabid football fans who have become soft in the head after years of keg stands and beer funnels. However, a closer examination suggests that this behavior is something we are all capable of.
There is a long history of sports fan delusion. One can still see Atlanta Falcons fans who wear Michael Vick jerseys despite his dismissal from the team years ago for running dog a fighting ring. Tiger Woods is still the most popular player on the tour. Steroids sullied baseball’s reputation, but the offending players are still idolized. Sports fans’ emotions can trump astoundingly bad facts.
Before the non-sports fan becomes too lofty in his or her judgment, politics has established the same double-standard. How many Bill Clinton supporters believed the Monica Lewinski scandal was a witch hunt, but still readily attacked Christopher Lee, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich for accused infidelity? How many Republicans sat mute while George Bush rapidly raised the federal deficit, but now carry a rallying cry against Barack Obama for reckless spending?
This list attempts to illustrate the human capacity to make facts fit our particular worldview. As the research supporting cognitive dissonance suggests, people will utilize amazing shifts in thinking to avoid conflicting beliefs. The more committed a person is to a principle, the further they will go to avoid rejecting it.
In law, it is easy to become entrenched in the facts of a case. The rule of law establishes a concrete methodology for deciding disputes. In a purely rational world (note that I did not say a “perfect world”), logical argument would always be the weapon of choice. However, we live in an imperfectly emotional world, where logic can easily be trumped by emotional response.
Given that Skynet has not yet gained self-awareness and created a robot-dominated planet (despite the Terminator prediction of 04/19/2011 @ 8:11 pm), our attempts to convince an audience must speak loudly to potential emotional motivations. Mock trial research frequently demonstrates that the case with the best facts can easily be the loser if proper storytelling is not utilized to motivate jurors.
Judges, arbitrators, mediators and jurors will not be as emotionally connected to your case arguments as Penn State fans are to Joe Pa. However, they will still have significant investments in particular storylines and emotional appeals. The trick is to deduce what these storylines are before creating your strategy. Overly-complex factual arguments will impress a law professor, but may land with a thud in the real world. Unless, of course, you have already used more simplistic emotional motivation to create a strong desire within your audience to weed through the complexity.
There is an old adage suggesting we avoid the discussion of religion, politics and sex in mixed company. These topics are taboo because they can inspire fervent emotion. They often cause people to reject logic and maintain an entrenched belief system. In worst-case scenarios, these discussions can result in physical blows.
While we look upon the Penn State fans on Joe Paterno’s lawn as misguided and clouded by sentiment, we must also respect their dedication. Rightly or wrongly, who among us would not want such a motivated crew fighting for our defense?
Blogger: Matt McCusker