Persuasive Effect of Stories — When Facts Are Weak Vs. Strong

Weak and strong (photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L Swanson

Persuasion plays a pivotal role in all legal contexts: e.g., pleadings, motions, hearings, mediations, trials and appeals.

A recent study on “Strategic Storytelling” [Fn. 1] looks at how the use of a story to present facts  works as a tool of persuasion.

Prior research has shown that:

  • Stories can lead people to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt, or to passively accept the viewpoint of the orator; and
  • In this way, stories have the power to draw us in and change our attitudes and opinions, perhaps even when the facts themselves are weak or inconclusive.

Another finding from prior studies is that “counterarguing” (i.e., generating negative thoughts and arguments) is reduced by embedding facts within a story.

Distinction

The Strategic Storytelling study provides a clarification and distinction on the “counterarguing” reduction effect as follows:

  • When facts are weak, people are more persuaded by facts embedded in a story than by facts alone; but
  • When facts are strong, people are more persuaded by facts alone than by facts embedded in a story.

The Strategic Storytelling study offers the following reasons for why this weak facts v. strong facts distinction exists.

  1. Weak facts generate a counterarguing effect—listeners tend to develop negative thoughts and counterarguments as they listen;
  2. Strong facts generate a bolstering effect—listeners tend to  develop positive thoughts and supporting arguments as they listen; and
  3. Narratives engross a listener in the story and get in the way of a listener’s focus on the facts.

Accordingly:

  • stories are helpful in persuading people when the facts are weak (i.e., stories minimize the counterarguing effect); but  
  • conversely, stories are NOT helpful in persuading people when the facts are strong (i.e., stories minimize the bolstering effect).   

Conclusion

Persuasion plays a pivotal role in all legal contexts.

The Strategic Storytelling study and findings provide helpful information toward understanding how efforts at persuasion can be maximized. 

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Footnote 1:  The study is “Strategic Storytelling: When Narratives Help Versus Hurt the Persuasive Power of Facts,” by Rebecca J. Krause and Derek D. Rucker, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2020, Vol 46(2) 216-227. 

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