Civility

How Lawyers Use Words to Influence Perception

To receive updates from Mark Palmer, subscribe to the Commission’s newsletter.  Get Updates from Mark

Wooden words scattered on a tableLawyers make their living with words. They employ their tool of the trade by carefully crafting what is said in the courtroom and on paper, from a jury trial to a real estate contract.

A good lawyer also knows that words that may work wonderfully before a jury could backfire in a brief as inappropriate exaggeration or attempted emotional influence. As lawyers, we must know our audience.

So just how powerful are words in shaping perception and future action? We can turn to quantum theory, of all places, to better understand their impact.

Words are fluid

In 1927, Dr. Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, realized that just the act of observing something alters the reality of what is being observed. In simpler terms, if you measure the position of a particle with a wavelength, it throws off the momentum of the particle. But if you adjust the wavelength to measure the momentum more closely, the position will be less accurate (Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle).

Like particles, words never seem to impart a single position when it comes to their meaning. It’s difficult to conceive of a truly neutral word because as soon as you label a concept, you’re changing how others perceive it.

To make things more consuming, the meaning of a word can change over time and impact people and events in various ways depending on their context. While the words we use to shape an argument may powerfully impact some people, they might also unintentionally disassociate or alienate others.

Memories reshaped

Lawyers often use artful language techniques to call upon different emotions to best serve their clients. Sure, word choice can steer the analysis of a case, but it can also unintentionally distort or even generate false memories.

For example, in an automobile accident case, defense counsel may refer to the cars “making contact with each other,” while the plaintiff counsel may say one car “smashed into the other.”

Researchers Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer demonstrated the influence of leading descriptions like these on testimony and subsequently on the jury.

In their first study, participants watched a film of a traffic accident and were asked to describe what they witnessed. They were asked a series of questions, including this question with different versions of the verb: “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed/collided/bumped/hit/contacted each other?”

The estimated speed was affected by the verb used in the question, impacting the participants’ memory of the accident. The participants in the “smashed” condition reported the highest speed estimate (40.8 mph), followed by “collided” (39.3 mph), “bumped” (38.1 mph), “hit” (34 mph), and “contacted” (31.8 mph) in descending order.

Their second study examined how memory may not just be influenced, but rather modified, supplemented, or even changed because of the language used.

Three equal groups of participants watched another video of a multiple car accident. Fifty participants were asked how fast were the cars going when they “hit” each other while another 50 were asked the same question, but the verb was replaced with “smashed.” The remaining 50 participants weren’t asked any questions to serve as a control group.

A week later, all 150 participants were asked if they remembered seeing broken glass at the accident scene. Results showed that participants who were asked the question with the verb “smashed” reported seeing twice as much broken glass as those who were asked with the verb “hit.” The control group, which was not asked any questions, reported broken glass just as much as the group that was asked with the verb “hit.”

If altering a single word can impact and even change how people recall an event they witnessed minutes or even a week before, just imagine how perceptions might be influenced months or years later and under distracting conditions.

And we don’t have to wait until the courtroom to see the potential impact. Other victims, witnesses, or the police themselves may also influence the recollection of an event. For example, a witness may say to another at the time of the crash, “Did you see that truck just fly through that intersection and total that car!?” From the time a memory is formed, it’s subject to the influence of words.

Raise your words, not your voice

Along with impacting people’s perception of reality, words construct the foundation of our society. Words form our laws and establish our freedoms. Words can enforce our rights and protect us from injustice. They can also convey our opinions and express our beliefs.

Today, words are quickly and easily shared around the world through social media. And the temptation to eschew civil discourse for a chance to draw greater attention or followers haunts many.

Nevertheless, as lawyers, it’s important that we reflect on the ethical tenets, which lay out our responsibility to use our words precisely and diligently as advocates and negotiators who zealously assert our client’s position under the rules of the adversary system but in a way that demonstrates honest dealings with others.

As lawyers, we make our living with words, and that affords us a special responsibility to manage our language with due care.

As such, we must continue to guide our service to clients and the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system with language founded on professionalism and civility.

To receive updates from Mark Palmer, subscribe to the Commission’s newsletter.  Get Updates from Mark

Related reading:

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.