Tag: Cognitive bias

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Beyond formal rules of evidence

Last year the Wall Street Journal wrote about problems with sleeping jurors. Brooklyn law professor I. Bennett Capers’ new article Evidence Without Rules, forthcoming in the Notre Dame Law Review, points out a much more pervasive issue: all the information jurors take in when they are awake.

The rules of evidence strictly limit what jurors can consider. They are have been “understood, and continue to be understood, as all-seeing, all-encompassing gatekeepers, checking all of the information juries may hear or see for relevance and trustworthiness.” Capers shows this view to be inaccurate and incomplete:

The assumption is that the rules are all-encompassing, unbounded. But the truth is far different. To be sure, the Rules of Evidence place limits on some of the information jurors hear and see, such as witness testimony and exhibits, the type of information that is formally announced and introduced as evidence by lawyers. Other evidence, however, passes by evidentiary gatekeepers practically unseen and unnoticed. Jurors use it to decide who was right and who was wrong; who committed a crime and who did not.

It is this other evidence that “breeze[s] unchecked” past the gatekeeping function of the evidentiary rules. And, Capers argues, “[i]f the goal of evidence law is ‘that truth may be ascertained and proceedings justly determined,’ then that objective is frustrated when outputs turn on improper and unchecked inputs.”

He gives three major examples pertaining to all the players in the courtroom—parties, witnesses, attorneys, and others:

  1. Their dress
  2. Their demeanor
  3. Their race

First, dress—for example, glasses, which can be used for a “nerd defense” but may also make white-collar defendants look more guilty. As to the role of glasses, the article left me actually speechless with a jury consultant’s advice: “savvy lawyers should spray a defendant’s glasses with PAM cooking spray so that the jury cannot see the person’s eyes, at least when the lawyer fears the defendant might come across as ‘shifty-eyed.’”

Second, demeanor—Capers points out that the lawyer can use nonverbal behavior to supplement or tear down testimony. It was this aspect of the paper that seemed most connected to the topics here on this blog. A lawyer’s demeanor can serve as a kind of “performative listening” that doesn’t just elicit testimony but gives some kind of statement in its own right:

Consider the lawyer who drums her fingers on the table while a witness testifies on the stand, or rolls her eyes or raises a skeptical eyebrow. Or the lawyer who quietly nods along at a certain point in a witness’s testimony. . . . They are in effect vouching for witnesses, or in the case of opposing witnesses, implying a witness is unworthy of belief. They are offering the equivalent of opinion testimony without themselves swearing an oath or taking the stand.

The way the lawyers sit aligned with their client or put a protective arm around the client is itself a form of opinion evidence, Capers argues—unacknowledged evidence that would violate Rule 404(a) if it were considered “evidence” in the first place.

Third, race—which connects with demeanor evidence but is of course much broader. As to demeanor, which has proven crucial in death-penalty juries’ deliberations, the impact of race makes jurors worse at reading faces: “Several studies have found that how jurors interpret facial expressions depends on the race of the juror and the race of the defendant; not only do we have trouble with cross-racial identification; we have trouble with cross-racial identifications of remorse.”

The impact of race also makes jurors worse at remembering the facts fairly:

[In one study,] participants invented aggressiveness when the actor was black, [but] actually failed to remember evidence of aggressiveness when the actor was white. In short, it is not only in cases involving minority defendants where race matters. Race also matters in cases involving white defendants, whom jurors are more likely to view as presumptively innocent, and cases involving white witnesses whom jurors deem presumptively credible.

Beyond these three factors explored in the articles, there is, of course, sexism such as jurors’ bias toward male experts as more authoritative, bias toward people with families, bias against the use of an interpreter, and male bias against overweight women. “Outsider accents” are viewed as less credible, whereas neutral and especially British accents gain extra credibility.

The question Capers struggles with is what to do about all of this. Given the almost impossible bar of overturning a jury verdict, even on evidentiary issues formally recognized as evidence, the basic effect is “What happens in the jury room stays in the jury room.”

And he points out that existing instructions may exacerbate the problem. Telling jurors to decide based on what they “saw and heard in court” may “giv[e] them tacit approval to consider anything they hear or see—including the dress of witnesses, or the presence of supporting family members, or the defendant’s demeanor even if he does not testify—so long as they do not consider as evidence anything the court explicitly prohibited, such as the questions of lawyers.”

Capers goes on to suggest a stronger admonitory instruction, phrased in concrete, plain language. He also suggests providing jurors with an evidentiary checklist of the witnesses and the documents. Capers’ suggestion here fits well within insights from cognitive science. For example, Daniel Kahnemann coined the phrase “WYSIATI”: What You See Is All There Is. Under WYSIATI, people rely heavily on affirmative information in front of them. Thus, an affirmative list of what the evidence actually is could direct attention toward the evidence actually presented and away from the natural tendency to fill gaps using other cognitive shortcuts.

Capers’ most radical suggestion is to redefine the scope of evidence itself. Under his proposed definition, evidence would include “anything that may come to a juror’s attention and factor into a juror’s deliberation.” The implications of such a definition seem vague at times. For example, he says that a rape victim’s clothing might trigger a 403 issue with the risk of unfair prejudice. But there is an aspect of personal autonomy in how people dress for court; if clothing could be prejudicial enough to trigger 403 then could it somehow come within the court’s discretion to order someone to, say, put on a sweater or take off a sweater? This reminded me of the incident from a couple of years ago where a weather reporter was asked to cover up, on air. And what should a judge do with flamboyant courtroom observers in high-profile cases, for example the Tex McIver trial that just wrapped up in Atlanta:

Capers answers most such questions by relying on detailed jury instructions. Footnote 153 in the article cites scholarship that instructions are not futile and do make a difference, especially when repeated and explained clearly.

I appreciated the realism at the end of his article, acknowledging a possible counter-argument: Why does any of this matter? Why shouldn’t jurors consider all that stuff, as they always have? Drawing on Critical Race Theory and his own professional and personal experiences, Capers out that dress, demeanor, race, and all those other factors are not neutral:

Who benefits from the status quo when we pretend dress does not matter, or demeanor does not matter, or the presence of family members does not matter, or language ability or up-speak or race or gender does not matter? Who benefits? And who does not?

Cross-cultural communicationLegal communicationPeople skills

Cognitive bias and listening

Cognitive biases—such as believing information that confirms what you already believe—present a major challenge to the idea of the “rational actor.” Cognitive biases are being being studied in practically every field, including law. Bringing the research to a popular audience, Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a challenging but accessible read. And I was happy to learn that Kahneman’s Nobel-Prize winning partnership with Amos Tversky will be the subject of Michael Lewis’s next book.

Also providing an accessible take on cognitive bias, here’s a “Cognitive bias cheat sheet” by Buster Benson. In addition to the concise and helpful text, the visual “Codex” of cognitive biases at the bottom is a brilliant piece of visual storytelling. (This “cheat sheet” was shared by Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of Originals plus a forthcoming book with Sheryl Sandburg. His Granted newsletter would be useful to anyone who puts thought into their communications.)

Listen Like a Lawyer has covered cognitive bias before, here and here and here. Reading Benson’s post reminded me of why it’s so important to continue revisiting and emphasizing this topic.

How can cognitive bias affect (or should it be infect) the listening process? I’ll quote a few of Benson’s summaries from the cheat sheet.

For example:

“Bizarre/funny/visually-striking/anthropomorphic things stick out more than non-bizarre/unfunny things.”

Have you ever talked to someone with food stuck between their teeth? It’s so bizarre and distracting you may not have been able to concentrate on what they were saying. That’s the example of a listening problem that came to my mind, anyway.


“We notice flaws in others more easily than flaws in ourselves.”

When listening to someone face to face, the flaw-finding intuition may kick on, whether the person has food between her teeth or not. This is actually even more true in writing. An interesting study found that people consistently give higher ratings to spoken material than if the exact same words are written down:

“[W]ritten passages lack critical paralinguistic cues that provide critical information about a speaker’s intelligence and thoughtfulness. Your voice is a tool that has been honed over the course of human evolution to communicate what’s on your mind to others. Without even thinking about it, you naturally flood your listener with cues to your thinking through subtle modulations in tone, pace, volume, and pitch. The listener, attuned to those modulations, naturally decodes these cues. That’s why if you claim to be passionate about your prospective job, for example, hearing your passion may be more convincing than reading your passion.”

So perhaps listening creates a bias toward the human connection in face-to-face communication. But what if some of this human connection is distorted in our memories?

“We edit and reinforce some memories after the fact.”

An important part of listening is remembering what has been said in order to form an appropriate response. This is a short-term memory function. In the longer term, as Benson writes, details can be “swapped” or even “injected” into a memory. Remembering what you were thinking during a conversation might in some ways overshadow your memory of the conversation itself.

Such distortions can cause other communication problems:

“We think we know what others are thinking.”

Benson writes that we may be “modeling their mind after our own” in how we think about what they are thinking. This presents an impediment to properly gauging another person’s level of understanding.

Another issue:

“We find stories and patterns even in sparse data.”

Legal listeners may make the most out of the data available such as the paralinguistic cues indicating the speaker’s emotions. Or they may turn their mind inward, hearing a few facts and then instantly connect this client’s situation to a past experience or archetypal story like David v. Goliath.

Some of this gap-filling may happen partly because people think faster than others can talk. This creates the well-known “thought-speech differential”. The excess brain capacity to think, compared with the relatively slow rate of speech, creates mental opportunities to spin stories around the “sparse data.”

And could this differential cause problems? Yes, in several ways.

One issue is a simple intolerance for listening, especially when speakers aren’t perceived to be concise. We’ve all felt that frustration as listeners:

Just get to the point!  

And that frustration can lead to simple “self-help solutions” such as checking one’s phone for more pressing info. Benson writes about how many cognitive biases come from the fundamental human need to act fast. Listening is slower than thought, so it may simply stand in conflict with the brain’s drive to take in information quickly and make a decision. Our collective acclimation to faster and faster pace of receiving information has been written about elsewhere in wonderful sources such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and the work of Sherry Turkle. That topic is too broad for this one post. But it’s connected to the preference for texting over seemingly inefficient phone conversations and voicemails.

The drive to make a decision quickly can also lead the mind to rely on cognitive biases for gap-filling information, sometimes in troubling ways:

“We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories whenever there are new specific instances or gaps in information. “

To put it in even more troubling terms, again quoting Benson:

“We imagine things and people we’re familiar with or fond of as better than things and people we aren’t familiar with or fond of.”

Legal professionals should be able to work with people from different backgrounds using an open, unbiased approach. Cultural biases can infect the communication processes with numerous distortions, omissions, and other bad effects. As an example of legal work being done to combat those problems, here’s Professor Susan Bryant’s foundational article on the “habits” that build cultural competence. Professor Andrea Curcio has some excellent work in this area as well such as here and here. There are many, many others. On a positive note, Curcio’s work suggests that simply taking a carefully crafted survey can itself have beneficial effects on survey participants. She cites studies involving medical students in the U.S. and U.K. with similar outcomes.

More generally, with all of these cognitive biases around everywhere—just take a look again at that visual Codex of Cognitive Biases to understand how many there are—can anything be done to mitigate their pervasive effects?  Benson suggests studying a simple four-part outline of the problems causing cognitive biases as well as four corresponding consequences of unmitigated cognitive bias. The idea is that by keeping these ideas fresh in your brain, perhaps the “availability bias” privileging this countervailing information will cross over into other assessments our brains are constantly working on.

Law practiceLegal communicationLegal skillsPeople skills

Lawyers and biased listening (part 3)

Perception and decision-making are vulnerable to cognitive biases. Decisions based on listening are at least as vulnerable to bias as other forms of decision-making, if not more so. Previous posts in this series (here and here) have outlined the vulnerability of listening to bias and have addressed some of the most common cognitive biases. This concluding post highlights two more biases, how listening might play a role in these biases, and what lawyers can do to minimize their effects.

Duluth Anchor

1. For anchoring bias, prepare for impact and try “thinking the opposite.

A powerful cognitive bias is the “anchoring effect.” Anchoring is best defined through illustration:

A lawyer and client go to mediation after discussing a number that they would be willing to pay to settle. In the first round of the mediation, the other side has the first opportunity to offer a number. Its opening demand is ridiculously high and nowhere near what the lawyer and client had discussed. What is everyone in the room to do with that very large number?

The lawyer and client may start to worry that this opening number will influence the mediation. And the research on cognitive bias confirms that the lawyer and client are right to worry. The “anchoring effect” will tend to pull negotiations toward the number that any side puts out as the first “anchor.” One of several excellent law review articles discussing the anchoring effect is Blinking on the Bench: How Judges Decide Cases by Chris Guthrie, Jeffrey Rachlinski, and Andrew Wistrich.

Hearing an anchor—rather than reading it in a written demand or brief—could exacerbate anchoring bias. The act of reading is often private; you can go in your office and close the door to read a demand letter and digest it. You can take time to marshal your own mental arguments against it, and the arguments of others as well In contrast in many situations where you hear the anchor, you are on the spot with a client and the other party. So the vulnerability to the anchoring bias may come not such from hearing the number but more from hearing the number in person, under pressure.


  • Be attuned to the physiological effects of “hearing the other side’s number.” Hearing the number may provoke body language in us as listeners that reveals our thought process. Knowing the power of the “anchor” could help lawyers to preemptively temper their own reactions. They may help clients do the same by preparing them to hear a large number and explaining strategies for dealing with the experience.
  • Fight an anchor with a dramatic scene: storm out of a negotiation to signal that the number on the table is unacceptable. This solution is straight out of Thinking, Fast and Slow. And it will sound familiar to any lawyer who has . . . stormed out of a negotiation to signal that the number on the table is unacceptable. (Part of the allure of the cognitive bias research is that it more fully explains and labels vulnerabilities and responses that we may have experienced without having a clear label.)
  • Purposefully brainstorm all arguments against the anchor. Kahneman points out that this strategy is helpful for managing one’s own thoughts about a potential anchor. It could also be used for persuading others such as mediators and judges that a number is not appropriate and should not be the anchor.

2. Reduce distractions and know your own level of expertise to reduce “availability bias.”

We are more vulnerable to certain biases when we are simultaneously engaging in another “effortful task,” according to Kahneman. This is the connection back to cognitive load: the busier our cognitive resources are, the more vulnerable we are to cognitive bias. Our overloaded critical-thinking skills take a break and let our intuitions do the work—along with our intuitions’ embedded biases.

The “availability bias” is one such cognitive bias. The concept is that our thought processes become skewed by how easy it is to recall certain information. If information is available, it seems more important and vivid and likely to happen again. That is why Kahneman and others complain about media coverage. If newspapers regularly run articles about lawyer misconduct, the availability of that information may influence the public to believe lawyer misconduct is more common than it really is.

Availability can distort thinking in more subtle ways, and it is exacerbated by cognitive load. For example, imagine a lawyer who managing emails at a baseline rate of 10 per hour. The lawyer receives one particularly concerning e-mail about a client’s document production. Putting that aside until there is more time to seek a solution, the lawyer begins conducting some light legal research on a statutory question. The first search returns 3,000 results based on a Google-like strategy requiring the lawyer to filter the results after the initial search. At that point, a colleague stops by to the lawyer’s office to ask, “Do you have a minute to talk about the Smith case?”

With this cognitive load as the context, there is a chance the lawyer’s estimate of success or failure on the Smith case will be affected by the availability bias. The lawyer’s ease of remembering cases like the Smith case may play a disproportionate role in the analysis. The lawyer’s most recent experience related in some way to the analysis in the Smith case may also distort the lawyer’s thinking.

In addition to flourishing under challenging cognitive conditions, the availability bias is greater in “knowledgeable novices,” rather then “true experts,” Kahneman found. Thus a lawyer with a handful of experiences in one area of law is likely to be more affected by how easy it is to think of experiences, as contrasted with an expert, whose depth of experience teaches otherwise. (Scholarship on the depth and reliability of expert intuition, such as  A Revised View of the Judicial Hunch by Professor Linda Berger of UNLV, is a hopeful counterpoint to the pessimistic tone of some cognitive-bias work.)

The availability bias may arise in the listening context in a few ways. The real-time flow of listening may not give a listener time to thoroughly process and critically examine some analytical questions. Distractions or cognitive load from the act of listening itself may exacerbate the bias. And talking about issues that are not in one’s true area of expertise could play a role as well. Biases could snowball as a lawyer who likes the client and is happy about a new matter (affect bias) offers a tentative answer and then seeks reasons to support it (confirmation bias), which are supplied in part by the ease of remembering one or two cases that are somewhat similar (availability bias).


  • Monitor distractions and cognitive load, and preserve time for deeper focused analysis.
  • Distinguish your own areas of deep expertise from areas of moderate experience.
  • Develop strategies for handling questions that give yourself time and space for critical thinking before brainstorming a tentative answer. As Chris Bradley has written in the Lawyerist, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
  • Remember that what you say to a client may trigger the client’s own availability bias. Thinking out loud with the client in the room could alter the client’s perception about the legal analysis in unintended ways.


Because listening involves perception and is so intertwined with thinking, it is vulnerable to cognitive bias. By understanding more about how cognitive biases affect their perceptions and their thinking, lawyers can take steps to counteract the effects of these biases. Reflecting on biases and taking steps to reduce them can help lawyers reach the elusive goal of being not just good, but gifted, at listening.

EthicsLaw practiceLegal communicationLegal skillsPeople skills

Lawyers and biased listening (part 2)

Reducing bias in listening is important yet difficult, as discussed in the first post on listening and cognitive bias. This post explores some of the most well-known cognitive biases and how they may impact lawyers’ listening, with some suggested solutions from the cognitive-bias literature.


The halo effect

Kahneman introduces Thinking, Fast and Slow with one of the most obvious cognitive biases:

“When the handsome and confident speaker bounds onto the stage, . . . you can anticipate that the audience will judge his comments more favorably than he deserves. The availability of a diagnostic label for this bias—the halo effect—makes it easier to anticipate, recognize, and understand.”

Kahneman’s example focuses on physical attractiveness. But the halo effect is not limited to attractive speakers.  The halo effect is in essence “[t]he tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person—including things you have not observed.”

A halo effect can arise out of any trait. Based on one single attribute, whatever it may be, the halo effect biases the audience’s thinking toward everything else. As Kahneman points out, “the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted” (emphasis added).

Lawyers trying to be unbiased listeners should guard vigilantly against the halo effect. One of its particular dangers for lawyers is “suppressed ambiguity.” Once the halo effect takes over, ambiguous information will be interpreted consistently with the halo effect’s bias.


  • Having a label for the halo effect goes a long way toward combatting it, Kahneman points out. So try to label what is happening. When you can recognize that your thinking is being affected by a bias such as appearance or shared affinity for a school or team or musical style, you can trigger your more analytical thought process to start “thinking slow.”
  • Manage how you gather information, to the extent possible. Information sequence can introduce a halo effect. Lawyers who filter cases with intake specialists are doing this, to an extent: studying a case on paper can help combat halo effects such as potential clients who present well but have weak cases and clients who are rough around the edges but have strong cases. The structure of an intake form itself can help combat the halo effect by forcing certain questions. As Kahneman recognizes, following a checklist is one way to battle the influence of bias.

Confirmation bias

The halo effect is closely related to confirmation bias: “our tendency, when receiving new information, to process it in a way that it fits our pre-existing narrative about a situation or problem.” Basically the confirmation bias distorts our thinking about the world to guide it toward the way we already think about the world.

Confirmation bias is discouraging to think about both politically and professionally. Confirmation bias “shuts down creativity” and shows up as “arrogance” and “bad listening.” For lawyers, a classic case of confirmation bias is not being able to recognize or accept that a formerly high-value case may not, after discovery, be as fantastic as it first seemed.

Confirmation bias also operates in small-scale contexts such as the flow of a conversation. When someone speaks up in a conversation with comments leaning one way or the other, that person’s confirmation bias may then shape the way she hears the rest of the conversation.

When you nod or cross your arms in response to information, your own positive or negative body language could affect how you continue to process the flow of information. As social psychologist Amy Cuddy has written and spoken about, body language can change not only others’ perception of your power status but also your own internal hormonal balance and behavior. (Others have noted the link between nonverbal behavior and confirmation bias as well, such as this Forbes article.)


  • Try not to let a large, complex decision become overly influenced by an initial, small decision in that area. One good solution is to seek out input from a group, where the members of the group have each assessed the same question independently. For example in valuing a case, asking a colleague to look at the facts and value it (without knowing your own assessment) would help check your work for confirmation bias.
  • Slowing down enough to consider the analysis while asking questions from different angles can help combat confirmation bias, as suggested here. Lawyers have the benefit of analytical patterns such as “What would the other side say?” and “How would a judge look at this?” But at the same time, these patterns of thinking could create a confirmation bias toward lawyerly pessimism. Examining the question from different angles also means asking whether an intuitive “no, this won’t work” could be turned into a “win-win.”
  • In conversations lawyers may want to hold themselves back from commenting too soon on a matter. Whether an initial comment is a hesitant “here’s why it won’t work” or an enthusiastic “yes!”, once the listener has chimed in with an opinion, confirmation bias will make it hard for the listener to interpret the rest of the conversation in an unbiased fashion.
  • Lawyers should also be vigilant about their own strategy for managing conversations. Taking over a conversation may be necessary to keep it relevant and efficient. But taking over a conversation also implicates the confirmation bias of the one managing the conversation. Information that doesn’t fit the dominant narrative may be suppressed.

Emotional biases

Certain cognitive biases have a stronger impact on those who are in a good mood. And it is stronger for people who are powerful or who at least feel powerful. The larger idea, as Kahneman writes, is that “[a] good mood is a signal that things are generally going well, the environment is safe, and it is all right to let one’s guard down.” When that happens, our critical-thinking skills relax somewhat, and the automatic aspects of our thought processes run the show.

These considerations are important in a number of listening situations. Having a face-to-face conversation with a trusted and longtime client may provoke positive mood and possibly also a feeling of power. The positive mood and feelings of power could conceivably affect the lawyer’s cognitive processes.

For example, when fielding the client’s questions about the probability of success in a future matter, the lawyer may rely more heavily on the ease of remembering other recent victories. The lawyer may also want to continue to appear highly effective, and thus may answer questions more quickly and a bit less cautiously.

Likewise, lawyers conducting fact investigations might consider whether they feel positively toward the witnesses they are interviewing. It can be hard to detect that a very likeable person is not being forthcoming. The “affect” bias—having positive feelings of liking toward something—can impact decision-making.


Although it is true that pessimistic thinking is less vulnerable to bias, the solution for lawyers is not to cultivate bad moods and negative thinking. The solutions to affect bias run along the same lines as suggested above:

  • Being aware of the affect bias can help lawyers use their people skills for friendly conversations, of course, without abandoning their critical thinking skills, of course.
  • Using tools such as checklists can help insulate perceptions and decision-making from bias.
  • Delaying answers to questions raised during a friendly conversation can preserve time for slow, careful thinking.


The biases discussed above (the halo effect, confirmation bias, and affect bias) deal with perception and liking, such as liking your own beliefs and the people you’re dealing with. A third and final post in this series will address some additional cognitive biases that can impact lawyers’ analysis and listening:

  • the “anchoring effect,” which occurs when someone offers up the first number in a negotiation, thus anchoring further talks around that number; and
  • the “availability bias,” which distorts our thinking based on the availability of information in our working memory.

As always, please share your thoughts in the comment box or through social media or e-mail. How have you seen cognitive biases affecting the work of lawyers in their role of listeners or otherwise? How have you confronted the impact of these biases?

Law practiceLegal communicationLegal skillsPeople skills

Lawyers and biased listening (part 1)

Malcolm Gladwell has suggested that gifted listening means listening without bias. If that is the case, then to be better listeners, lawyers should simply eliminate their biases, right?

Reducing bias turns out to be easy to say and very hard to do. This post explores some basics of how bias works, and introduces why decision-making within a listening context—as opposed to reading—may be more vulnerable to bias. Two future posts will address specific types of biases, how they may affect listening, and methods for reducing bias.


1.  Conscious bias is bad, of course, but it is just the tip of the cognitive iceberg.

Bias affects our thinking and our listening, even when we don’t choose to be biased or consciously feel biased. The psychological term for subconscious biases, or distortions in our thinking, is “cognitive bias.”

Exploring the operation of numerous ingrained, subconscious biases is at the heart of Nobel Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman’s work, which he collects in his wonderful and challenging book Thinking, Fast and Slow (public lecture here beginning at 6:00 minutes after introduction).

As Kahneman explains, an unexpectedly large portion of our mental activity is automatic and running outside of conscious thought. Our mental processes are vulnerable to a series of cognitive shortcuts that shape and at times distort how we perceive information and make decisions.

For example, our thinking is biased toward:

  • what we already believe;
  • what we can easily remember; and
  • what we “like” in a general sense.

These biases are difficult to combat because they are so deeply part of how we think. Thus the first key to being a less biased listener is to understand there is more to it than just generally declaring: “Bias is bad, so now I will listen openly and without bias.”

2.  Listening may be particularly vulnerable to cognitive bias.

Listening is deeply intertwined with thought. Therefore it is necessarily afflicted by bias as well. Indeed, bias may actually be more pronounced when a person’s information is coming in via listening. This is because listening can be so cognitively challenging.

The cognitive challenge of listening arises in part from the fact the listener is largely at the mercy of the speaker. You don’t get to choose how fast and when to get the information. To perceive and comprehend the information, you must direct your attention at the speaker, interpreting the message in context and in real time. If the speaker goes too fast, you can’t rewind; if the speaker goes too slow, you may become distracted and edgy. Psychological research does seem to support the claim that listening imposes a high cognitive load: “the transitory nature of auditory information may impose a heavy extraneous cognitive load that interferes with learning.” Jase Moussa-Inaty et al., Improving Listening Skills in English as a Foreign Language by Reading Rather than Listening: A Cognitive Load Perspective, 26 App. Cogn. Psych. 391, 392 (2011).

Listening—at least in person—also brings in a raft of information beyond the content. The speaker’s voice, body language, and physical appearance all send signals to the listener, sometimes competing with the actual content of the message. Social cues from other listeners may send signals as well, if the listener is one of a group.

Reading is a useful contrast: A reader can slow down, take a break, or write a reaction on the page. And the reader generally does see how the message affects other readers, at least not simultaneously while reading. (It is interesting to note that social reading such as “popular highlights” in e-books is spreading to legal research.)

Cognitive load matters so much because it makes decision-making more prone to bias. A task with high cognitive load is very taxing on the brain. As Kahneman’s work has proven, our critical-thinking skills can be powerful, but they tire easily under a cognitive load. When that happens, our intuition—walking hand-in-hand with our biases—takes over.

Therefore, if listening imposes a high cognitive load, then decision-making within the context of listening is vulnerable to cognitive biases.

Two more posts in this series on cognitive bias and listening will explore specific biases within the context of listening. They will try to suggest ways to combat cognitive bias, although even a genius such as Daniel Kahneman says that fighting cognitive bias is just very hard to do.

And a large caveat to this series: the main point here is not that listening is so vulnerable to bias that lawyers should avoid it whenever possible, opting instead to exchange letters and e-mails. Reading has its own vulnerabilities. Just as one example, if you read a counter-argument in a brief, all you will see are the words that have been crafted to make it look strong. Confidence (or lack thereof) and the client’s commitment to hold fast (or lack thereof) will not be perceptible. At a negotiation, mediation, or trial—or even in a short phone call—nonverbal cues will present a fuller picture.

Please do comment and share further with more information about cognitive bias and listening. Whether you’re a communications scholar, a psychologist, or a common-sense observer of the human condition, please share your thoughts and suggestions for how lawyers can listen in a less biased and therefore more effective way.