“Speech is a powerful master and achieves the most divine feats with the smallest and least evident body. It can stop fear, relieve pain, create joy, and increase pity.”
Such were the words of Greek sophist Gorgias who once taught the art of rhetoric and oration more than two thousand years ago. These words continue to ring true as our society becomes more polarized from politics to religion, and even science.
Today, it would take superb rhetorical skills to get people to consider your side of the argument. However, having a good grasp of logic and argumentation is not enough to win the crowd.
Many experts agree that underlying psychological factors play a key role in persuasion. This means that, on top of delivering your piece as factually and logically as possible, you also need to tap into the emotions and values of your listeners to gain their favor.
Psychology of persuasion
Dr. Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University, delves deeper into the psychology of persuasion in his book Influence: Science and Practice.
The book begins with the premise that people fall back to generalizations when making decisions to save time and effort in the face of information overload. Despite being given little thought, these generalizations form because they help people act in a more or less correct way.
Through numerous empirical studies, Dr. Cialdini identifies several principles behind this tendency. One of these is likability, which can be based on a person’s physical attractiveness or the compliments he or she gives. Even random similarities, such as having a similar-sounding name, can shape someone’s preference for another.
In another book co-authored by Dr. Cialdini titled Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be More Persuasive, an experiment by social researcher Randy Garner revealed that people respond better to those with names that sound similar to theirs.
The experiment involved two groups of participants. The first received a survey by mail from someone with a similar-sounding name. An example of this would be participant Robert Greer getting the survey from a ‘Bob Gregar’. The second received the same survey, but from someone with a non-similar name.
Of the first group, 56 percent completed and returned the form—almost twice as much as the second group where only 30 percent responded.
This and similar instances prove a point for Dr. Cialdini: People are more receptive to those who share characteristics with them whether in terms of looks, name, beliefs, school, hometown, and the like. Persuading them to your side, then, becomes a matter of exploiting this behavior.
A matter of justice
Dr. Cialdini’s insights may be meant for salespeople and advertisers, but playing the psychology game applies just the same in more serious situations, such as the courtroom.
Like all human beings, jurors are susceptible to influence. While the jury is sworn under oath to remain fair and impartial, it can be swayed based on the members’ shared values with the parties at court, or their disposition at the time of trial.
The way these unspoken biases are exploited is best exemplified by television show Bull. From facial expressions and hand gestures to the choice of clothes, protagonist Dr. Jason Bull (Michael Weatherly) understands that non-verbal language can be used to take advantage of unspoken preferences and values.
With his team at Trial Analysis Corporation (TAC), Dr. Bull does an extensive research on the jury involved in his client’s case and uses this knowledge to gain an edge. In the episode “The Fall,” for instance, his client managed to win the favor of an animal activist among the jurors by tricking the opponent to bring out his keychain during questioning. The keychain turned out to have a genuine rabbit foot charm—a seemingly insignificant item that would cost him the trial.
In another episode titled “E.J.,” Dr. Bull and his team won the jury by getting their client to sympathize with the opponent. By making the client come to her opponent’s defense, she appeared more likeable to the jurors.
As the season finale approaches, will TAC still have enough psychological tricks left up its sleeves to win the case and save the day? Catch Bull every Wednesday, 9:00PM, first and exclusive on RTL CBS Entertainment.