Tag: confirmation bias

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Why it’s so hard to be understood

Among Listen Like a Lawyer’s summer reading is Heidi Grant Halvorson’s No One Understands You and What To Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press 2015). Halvorson is a professor at Columbia Business School; here she is interviewed by CBS News about the book.

51nTzV8T70L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The book’s focus is on understanding how others perceive you, so that you may better manage how you are perceived. It’s not focused on the legal industry, but it discusses psychological dynamics that certainly apply in law offices as well as any organization. For lawyers, law students, and legal professionals, I would say this book is most useful for the following goals:

  • exploring the dynamics of interviewing process
  • delving beyond the surface in what is happening at work, particularly in work teams and with organizational clients
  • improving how one is perceived by a supervisor or work team
  • lightly exploring broader “psychology of leadership” concepts in the business world

Across situations, cognitive biases on all sides create distortions and disconnects in how someone thinks they are perceived and a perceiver’s actual impression. For the person communicating a message, the “transparency illusion” creates the overly optimistic expectation that others do in fact understand our intention. This illusion comes about in part from overconfidence about how clearly we communicate:

Your emotions are less obvious than you realize, and your face is less expressive too. Studies show that while very strong, basic emotionssurprise, fear, disgust, and angerare fairly easy to read, the more subtle emotions we experience on a daily basis are not.

On the receiving end, the well-known confirmation bias leads people to interpret information as confirming what they already think. These types of biases are semi-automatic and hard to combat, although more effortful, careful thinking in the “correction phase” can correct for distortions. (This is what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2.)

After laying this groundwork, Halvorson spends most of the book talking about the “lenses” that affect first impressions, before any intentional “corrections” can take place. The three key lenses are:

  • the trust lens

Trust is based on two factors—warmth and competencethat may sometimes be at odds with each other. More on that in a moment.

  • the power lens

To get the attention of a powerful person, it’s all about showing your “instrumentality.” As Halvorson writes, “It’s not about being niceit’s about being useful.”

  • the ego lens

The ego plays games with perception so that the perceiver comes out on top. Understanding ego dynamics can help a person avoid being seen as an ego threat. The least manipulative-sounding of these is focusing on how the speaker and perceiver are members of the same group (such as alums of the same school or members of the same profession).

These lenses are at work in difficult situations that lawyers and legal professionals face every day. A few that come to mind: clients who resist signing settlements that are strongly in their favor; supervising lawyers who want to control conversations with clients; legal professionals who gain a reputation—either for good or poor work—that seems difficult if not impossible to alter.

All of these lenses could help with the goal of listening, in that knowing about them can help a listener understand better what the other person is saying and why. Developing trust by cultivating warmth was where listening came into play explicitly. Some warmth tactics seem obvious: make eye contact, smile, and focus. But Halvorson cites studies that “people generally have no idea when they are not doing these things.” One practical theme of the book is just to ask friends and family about how you come across: do you make eye contact? How do they perceive you?

A potential difficulty for lawyers is the conflict—or at least perceived conflict—between what it takes to show warmth versus competence:

When people are trying to appear warm, they are agreeable, engage in flattery, make kind gestures, and encourage others to talk (i.e. they are good listeners). But when they want to appear competent, they do the opposite–speaking rather than listening, focusing the conversation on their own accomplishments and abilities, and challenging the opinions of others as a demonstration of their own expertise. In fact, both consciously and unconsciously, people tend to use this knowledge and play down their competence (i.e., play dumb) to appear warm, and vice versa.

 

Halvorson notes this conflict is a particular conundrum for “nontraditional women” who may experience particularly virulent sexism for perceived failure to adhere to stereotypes about women. This is an example where she nods to the deep and troubling excesses of cognitive biases, but this book is not the place to look for introspection or sensitive exploration of stereotypes and what to do about them.

Rather, it’s a pragmatic toolkit for the person who wants others to “get” them. For trying to resolve the warmth/competence conflict, Halvorson suggests the “moral” aspects of warmth do not conflict with competence. These aspects include being “courageous, fair, principled, responsible, honest, and loyal.” She notes that in a brief interview, it is a lot easier to show your sense of humor than that you are principled. But overall, perceived—and actual—trust is built by “being someone the perceiver can always count on to do the right thing.”

Halvorson also has chapters for difficult interactions such as those with “vigilant risk-mitigators” and “aloof, avoidant perceivers.” She closes with a relatively short treatment  seeing others more clearly (e.g., “take more time” and “consider evidence for and against” a hypothesis) and even seeing yourself more clearly. A common thread throughout the book is to ask friends, family and (if you dare) colleagues how you come across. If people consistently perceive you in ways you don’t intend, then reading, re-reading, and working on the ideas in this book may be in order.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AdvocacyFact investigationLegal communicationLegal skillsLitigation

Yes, I’m listening to Serial. Aren’t you?

The podcast Serial has, in the past few months, become the most popular podcast ever. As a dedicated bibliophile and not much of an audiobook fan, I’ve been surprised to become so engrossed. Serial reinvestigates the murder of Hae Min Lee, a high-school student from Baltimore who was killed in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted and remains in prison. Serial raises a lot of questions about criminal justice, the legal system, and lawyering—and it manages to raise them in an interesting, suspenseful way. Listening is intertwined with these issues in a variety of ways, from our own experience as listeners to the vexed role of listening in the investigation and beyond.

Lawyer as listener

Lawyers are used to be the “tellers” in storytellers. As we listen to Serial, we experience a story as the audience. Producer Sarah Koenig controls the pace of the narrative both “week by week” and moment by moment. What immediately struck me—in a good way—was her use of pauses. She speaks quickly but in comprehensible segments, leaving space for understanding. She also uses the voices of others so well. Of course, one would expect nothing less from any affiliate of This American Life. Yet Serial brings a fresh appreciation for the interplay of voices and pauses delivered up for the listener’s ear. Just as one concrete benefit to spending your time with Serial: if you have a CLE presentation to prepare, it might inspire you to use a short video segment, or to experiment a little more with pauses and conversational suspense the way Koenig does.

It’s also interesting that each episode of Serial differs in length. Koenig doesn’t try to space out the narrative to fill a set length of time; she breaks off one coherent piece of the story, fleshes it out, and stops. An episode may be 28 minutes long, or it may be 53. The flexibility of the podcast format is extra courteous to the listeners: we can listen whenever and wherever we want, and we know that an episode is just exactly as long as the producer thinks it should be, no more. The fact it’s free doesn’t hurt either. (In episode 9 she asks for listener contributions, and to date enough has been gathered to support a second season.)

One more note on the listening experience, and this is a little more critical: Serial is in part a work of entertainment, and as such, it has own music. At first, the signature jaunty opening piano left me confused. The music also includes some looming, menacing moments, as well as plaintive notes associates with Hae, the victim. But when we later think of Serial and its phenomenal podcast success, I think we’re going to think of the jaunty piano. As Slate asked, “What the heck is Serial: A mystery? A comedy? A touching memorial?” I can understand why her family may be in pain to have her murder brought back into the public’s view—and the public’s ear—in this way.

Listening in the criminal-justice system

Then there is Serial‘s substantive coverage of how listening happens in the legal system. The listening comes in the form of information gathering, but also information-confirming, and the line between them is not always clear.

We hear several segments of taped interviews with a key witness—indeed, the state’s star witness—talking to Detectives Ritz and MacGillivary. One detective would ask a question that leads the witness to answer and perhaps ramble, at which point the other would follow up with pointed clarification, as Koenig points out. Perhaps it’s surprising that we hear any tactics at all in these interviews. Before taping, the witness and detectives spent three hours “ironing out” this witness’s statement, which was the standard practice back in 1999 and has since been discredited. As producer Sarah Koenig points out this untaped “pre-interview” is “where the mischief can happen, the contamination.” She’s quoting Jim Trainum, a former homicide detective and now consultant to police forces, innocence projects, and others (such as famous podcasts) on issues of interrogation techniques and false confessions. Serial hired Trainum as a consultant for the series.

In prosecution of Syed, the star witness had the virtue of providing valuable information the detectives hadn’t been able to get anywhere else. That witness also provided closure, “a satisfying investigative circle, a murder case on a silver platter,” Koenig points out. When detectives hear possibly conflicting details, they don’t push. The reason they don’t push are both explicit and much more subtle. In terms of obvious strategy, as Trainum states, “You don’t want to do something if it’s going to go against your theory of the case.” No confession is perfect; there will always be some inconsistencies. Those inconsistencies are handled very, very carefully because police don’t want to create “bad evidence.” Producer Koenig literally sputters when Trainum tells her the purpose of the interrogation is not so much to get to the truth as it is to make the case.

Compounding the conscious intent to make the case is the subconscious effect of verification bias. (Listen Like a Lawyer has previously posted on various cognitive biases including confirmation/verification bias.)

To illustrate verification bias, Trainum recreates the mental dialogue of a detective taking a statement, when that detective hears something that doesn’t quite fit: ”I want to believe you because you’re my witness and I think this is what happened and all that, so the fact that you’re giving me something that’s inconsistent and doesn’t fit my theory of the case, what does verification bias cause you [sic] to do? Ignore it and push it aside.”

By the time the detectives interview defendant Syed, as chronicled in episode 9, they have moved from information-gathering to what looks like information-confirming: they open his interview with a “theme.” One of the detectives introduced himself to Syed by suggesting that the detective himself had an ex-wife and could understand how “this” could happen. Serial doesn’t suggest that listening must always be open-ended and can never arrive at a central narrative. That would be naive. But Koenig is certainly suggesting the narrative that convicted Syed is problematic. In essence, Serial is listening to Syed’s story as of today, as it has developed post-conviction, in a way that the court system may or may not do. His petition for post-conviction relief is pending.

Serial has finished its ninth episode and has a handful more to go. For lawyers who have not yet picked up on it, I do recommend it. For those who are already listening to Serial, please share your thoughts. How has the listening experience affected you? What do you think it shows about listening within the legal system?

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.

Halo

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.

Solutions?

  • 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.)

Solutions?

  • 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.

Solutions?

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.

Conclusion

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?