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Schema Shifting: Breaking judge bias

Schema shifting is, hands down, the single most consistently effective technique for modifying the judge's emotional impression of an argument. It's also something that I've never seen systematically explained - anywhere. So yeah. Blog post.

Before we start...

A "schema" (pronounced "SKEE-muh", if you care) is, loosely defined, a set of preconceived ideas about something. For example, when I say "watermelon", you think of a large green fruit; when I say "housefire", you think of flames and firetrucks; and when I say "economic depression", you think of falling stock markets, pay cuts, and unemployment.

Schemas (or schemata, if you're being technical) allow your brain to easily absorb new information. Instead of building your vision of something from scratch, you can start with the nearest schema and just focus on the ways in which it is different. The classic example (taken from the fantastic book Made to Stick) is the word "pomelo". Here's a technical explanation from Wikipedia:

The pomelo (Citrus maxima or Citrus grandis) is a crisp citrus fruit native to South and Southeast Asia. It is usually pale green to yellow when ripe, with sweet white (or, more rarely, pink or red) flesh and very thick albedo (rind pith). It is the largest citrus fruit, 15–25 centimetres (5.9–9.8 in) in diameter, and usually weighing 1–2 kilograms (2.2–4.4 lb).

...and here's a simple explanation from Made to Stick:

A pomelo is basically an oversized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind.

Which explanation gave you the fastest mental image of a pomelo? The second, obviously. You already know what a grapefruit is; you just had to modify your mental image with "oversized" and "thick and soft rind." That's a schema at work. (Actually, the first explanation also made use of schemas - "citrus fruit" and "rind" - but in a less direct way.)

A world of magnets

Explaining an idea to the judge is a little like throwing a paper clip into a maze full of magnets - it will stick to whatever compatible schema it hits first. If a case's harms are about pollution, the judge will instinctively activate their "toxic chemicals" schema. If your someone reads a scientific study to back up their point, the judge will instinctively activate their "scientists say so" schema. And so forth.

Like magnets, schemas have a powerful attractive force. Our brains try very hard to fit new information into an existing schema, because it minimizes the amount of new information we have to learn. We have a very difficult time with concepts that don't fit into any existing schema (like, say, polynomial division). Similarly, once an idea is attached to a schema, it's very difficult to detach. In fact, studies have found that people will often outright ignore evidence that doesn't fit their preconceived schema. Uncertainty is uncomfortable - rather than letting new evidence introduce uncertainty into our way of thinking, we often just choose to ignore it.

Schema Shifting: The easy way to break bias

Here's the thing: all judge bias is a result of schemas. When we say that a judge is "biased" against plans that raise taxes, it really just means that their schema for "higher taxes" has a lot of negative emotions attached to it: lower income, government overspending, regulations interfering with personal liberty, etc. In order to overcome the bias, we have to break the schema - either reprogram their idea of what "higher taxes" means, or keep them from thinking of the plan as "higher taxes" in the first place.

Reprogramming a schema is hard. Detaching an idea from a schema is also hard. Shifting from one schema to another similar schema, however, is quite easy. When you think of it this way, breaking bias is easy:

First, look at how the judge will perceive the argument. Then, find
another schema that's really similar (but positive), and shift to it.

In other words, don't try to convince someone that their schema is wrong; convince them that they're using the wrong schema.

  • The plan benefits large corporations. The judge has latched onto the "corporations creating jobs" schema. Shift it to the "greedy executives get a bailout" schema. (Both involve companies getting money, but it's much more helpful.)
  • The plan lowers taxes. The judge has latched onto the "plan lowers wasteful government spending" schema. Shift it to the "plan cuts vital services for protecting the innocent" schema. (Both involve less spending, but it's much more helpful.)
  • Most of the experts dislike your plan. The judge has latched onto the "expert opinion" schema. Shift it to the "brainwashed masses engaging in groupthink" schema. (Both involve experts believing something, but it's much more helpful.)

But how do you shift a schema? Easy: rhetoric. Just reference lots of terminology and ideas from the ideal schema. For example, if you're trying to get the judge to shift into the "brainwashed masses" schema, use lots of words like "propaganda", "misinformed", and "ignorance". Focus on examples where the "experts" were clearly mislead. If the schemas are similar enough, the shift will happen automatically.

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  1. Amusing and informative good stuff. Thanks Daniel.

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