Tag Archives: primacy

Battling Confirmation Bias and First Impressions in Litigation

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

Confirmation bias refers to when people accept or reject evidence based upon what they want to believe as opposed to basing it on the actual merits of the evidence. In some ways, it is a psychological survival mechanism tied to our beliefs about how the world works. Challenges to these beliefs can cause a great deal of chaos and stress, so our brains are, essentially, pre-programmed to seek out evidence that reinforces those beliefs, while minimizing, explaining away, or outright rejecting evidence that challenges them. In fact, this explains the siloed media we have today where people tend to pick which news channels to watch based upon their political affiliation.

For lawyers, confirmation bias can be a significant problem at trial, especially when the first impressions favor the other party. As Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes, “The sequence in which we observe characteristics of a person is often determined by chance. Sequence matters, however, because the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted.” In other words, first impressions at trial often shape how jurors perceive the subsequent evidence and testimony at trial. A poor first impression of the defendant will likely lead jurors to place greater focus and emphasis on evidence and testimony that reinforces the negative view of the defendant and vice versa. Continue reading

Primed to Decide: How Impactful are Opening Statements?

My Cousin Vinny

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

Primacy and recency are, by far, the most popular theories of persuasion that arise in my discussions with attorneys. I have never heard an attorney mention “elaboration likelihood model,” but references to primacy and recency seem to come weekly at times. Primacy refers to the idea that what is presented most remains the most salient and, consequently, impactful for the audience. Recency is the opposite idea that an audience is most impacted by what it heard last.

Applied to a litigation setting, the primacy/recency debate translates to a popular debate about whether opening statements or closing arguments are more important. The traditional belief among lawyers (and in some respects, this author) is that opening statements are the most important part of trial. Many attorneys take primacy to an extreme, embracing a statistic that has been passed down through the ages that 70-90% of jurors make up their minds about the case after opening statements. In other words, these attorneys go as far as arguing that trial is essentially over after opening statements. Hans and Sweigart[1] offer a rich discussion of this belief in their analysis of civil jurors’ perceptions of attorneys, suggesting that this belief originated with a 1940 study[2] where researchers assessed liability judgments at eighteen different points in a mock trial and concluded that the vast majority of final verdicts were consistent with judgments made right after opening statements. Continue reading