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Rule of First Impressions And Preconceptions

 

Never forget the rule of first impressions. Constant care must be taken to avoid negative first impressions, which can and have many times, blown a litigant’s case to pieces before she has opened her mouth.

 

“Since jurors (and judges for that matter) form their perceptions early and tend to cling to them tenaciously, it is important to inspire the judge or jury early in the perception creating process if we are to have success,” writes Howard Nations in Powerful Persuasion.  [2] 

 

Broadly, many psychologists refer to this as the primacy effect, which generally means that impressions or other items of information recorded first are better remembered than information and impressions that follow. The ability to recall impressions gradually decreases until the end of a given presentation, when the recency effect takes over. The recency effect allows subjects to recall the most recent impressions more clearly than what was revealed prior. For that reason, you should always lead off and close with your strongest arguments, never bury them in the mushy (forgettable) middle.

 

The problem of first impressions – or opportunity, depending on your point of view –is that they are like concrete; liquid and runny at first, easily shaped and molded. But, like concrete, they will soon set up and become hard and unchangeable. The key for the litigant is to prepare in such a way as to shape that first impression – to give the judge and jury confidence that you are a credible, believable advocate – and that you and your claim are worth listening to further.

 

Don’t underestimate the power of first impressions.

 

These initial perceptions can carry such weight with judges and jurors that they may actually use them – whether consciously or not – to sift and sort through all subsequent evidence, discarding that which doesn’t conform to these early impressions.

 

Preconceptions are also core components of our thinking. Together they form the raw mass of our understanding of reality. Part of being human requires us to walk through life with volumes of preconceptions about life and reality, right and wrong, just and unjust.

 

Maybe in a perfect world, judges and jurors would weigh every case solely on its merits without regard to personal prejudices or preconceptions, but then again, maybe not, especially if we need and want the influence of the “better angels” of their natures, the angels of mercy and compassion, empathy and justice.

 

Preconceptions are part of the landscape and the skilled advocate learns to work with them, capitalizing on them when they offer an opportunity and minimizing them where they are a pitfall. Put another way, the presuader is careful to build a case that cuts with the grain of these preconceptions rather than against it.

 

Suppose, for instance, that you are questioning prospective jurors for a case that involves a serious automobile accident in which no one was killed or critically wounded, but which did result in severe damage to property belonging to you and several other parties. Knowing that the weather conditions were not the best the night of the accident – cloudy with rain and scattered low-lying fog – you might angle the questions during jury selection away from people who might have preconceptions about bad weather driving.

 

Since your objective is to recover property damages from the driver, you may want to bypass prospective jurors who have had similar accidents in bad weather conditions since they may have preconceptions that would favor the driver, as would those perhaps who are not private property owners.

 

But, if you knew that evidence emerging from the trial would indicate that the driver had a blood-alcohol content of twice the legal limit, which might radically alter the set of preconceptions you’re seeking in prospective jurors. You are a smart enough  to realize that jurors will call up scores of different preconceptions as soon as they hear that alcohol was involved in the accident.

 

Preconceptions and first impression are exceedingly hard to change. The mere presence of contradictory evidence is usually not enough to change what amounts to a made-up mind. Seize the initiative in these areas earlier than your opponents. Once that territory is occupied it’ll pay big dividends later on.

 

Remember, it doesn’t take long for preconceptions to become decisions. And once the judge or juror has arrived at an emotional point of decision, forensic psychologists say they are all but beyond convincing and are looking instead for hard data and evidence to support their conclusion. 
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