Negativity as a briefwriting strategy
20 April 2017
Are negative themes in briefwriting more persuasive than positive themes? Often, they are. That’s the indication from a study described in a recent article by Prof. Kenneth Chestek. It’s available for free download on SSRN. Here’s the abstract:
Cognitive psychologists have identified a phenomenon they call the “negativity bias,” in which humans seem to remember and be affected by negative information more strongly than by positive information. What are the implications of this bias for legal writers? Should they focus on negative themes (describing the opposing side as bad) instead of positive ones (describing their clients as good and worthy)? More specifically, to trial judges fall prey to the negativity bias?
This article describes an empirical test in which 163 judges were asked to read different versions of a Preliminary Statement to a trial brief (some using positive themes, others using negative ones) to measure whether (and by how much) the judge’s perceptions of the parties were affected. The study concludes that, in many (but not all) cases, negative themes did seem to have more impact on the judicial reader.
Chestek, Kenneth D., Fear and Loathing in Persuasive Writing: An Empirical Study of the Effects of the Negativity Bias (April 17, 2017). Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD, Vol. 14, 2017. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2953996.