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Simple Jury Persuasion: The “extremist effect”

Friday, January 13, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Most of us are familiar with the strategy of destroying a reputation with a barrage of nastiness. We all bemoan the ‘negative campaigning’ that is ramping up in this election year. But the problem is–it works. That is, “if you throw enough mud against the wall, something sticks”. And as it turns out, it doesn’t even have to be that much mud. New research from the realm of politics has something to teach us about addressing everything from pretrial publicity to opening statements. It’s a somewhat sad commentary on our tendency to “fill in” missing negative information. And a clear directive to pay attention to what we say and don’t say.

Researchers wanted to know how to go about diminishing those people who support universally held values (like wanting what is good for the environment) without being seen as directly attacking the value itself. Their belief was that political communicators “vilify their opponents as extremists in order to discredit their appeals to common values”. Further, they believe that “extremism is depicted as the error of turning a virtue into a vice through dogmatic, single-minded devotion”.

Through a series of experiments, the researchers discovered that simply labeling those on the other side as feminists or environmentalists created a significant backlash against the opposition. When the descriptor “radical” was added (i.e., radical feminists and radical environmentalists”), the negative reaction was stronger. When information on immigration was presented with the opposition being labeled as “extremist immigration lawyers and pressure groups”, participants again rejected the extremist group and supported those saying immigrants cost cities too much money.

The researchers believe this ‘extremist effect’ (i.e., calling someone an extremist) results in negative associations for the listener, and is especially effective in our current political environment.

The extremist tactic is attuned to a political environment that features conflicting values and an ambivalent public unsure about what its priorities should be.”

We would agree that the current political environment makes this tendency worse–but the tendency is always present. There is a tendency to assume the worst in general, but particularly in litigation situations. The strategy of turning a virtue into a vice in public opinion is a powerful one that has easily transferrable strategy for the courtroom.

For example:

You are a snowmobiling association being sued by environmental groups to block access to public lands. You diminish their position by saying, “Sporting enthusiasts may not get to enjoy our national parks this winter because [radical] environmentalists care more about rabbits than the local economy”.

In other words, you do not attack directly and seem uncaring about the environment. Instead, you tar their position as extremist and tie your position to something positive–in this case, the local economy.

Nelson, T., Gwiasda, G., & Lyons, J. (2011). Vilification and Values. Political Psychology, 32 (5), 813-835 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2011.00844.x

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