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Lessons from Behavioral Science: The Role of Reason

June 21, 2011

An evolutionary theory of behavioral psychology is rapidly gaining currency, The New York Times reports. It posits that people utilize reason not to uncover truth but to win arguments. This may come as small surprise to attorneys, whose work centers around figuring out how to persuade others of their clients’ positions. Perhaps more interesting, however, are the implications of this theory for attorneys. Researchers found that group learning and decision-making generally leads to superior outcomes. In order to persuade each other, group members will competitively utilize reason, and a side-effect of using reason is a tendency to reject logically unsound arguments. This raises the quality of debate and, ultimately, the entire group benefits. That insight provides yet another reason for lawyers to call upon colleagues and friends to debate important work issues, whether strategic business decisions or questions presented by a challenging case.

One caveat, though: the reason-based benefits of the group dynamic are most pronounced in cooperative environments. So, don’t be surprised if, in litigation and other adversarial group settings, you run up against cognitive biases that neutralize the benefits of enhanced rationality. One potential bogeyman is confirmation bias (the tendency to disregard information and arguments contrary to a pre-existing viewpoint). A corollary of confirmation bias is our tendency towards overconfidence. Even though risk aversion generally leads us to favor the certainty of settlement to the possibility of loss, we also tend to overestimate our chances of winning (and underestimate our chances of loss), possibly because lawyers tend to focus on the strengths of their case, not the weaknesses.

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