Why ADHD Advocates Are Losing In The Court Of Public Opinion
Most people have heard of, if not seen, the movie 12 Angry Men (I prefer the 1957 version). Of the IMDb’s 250 top movies of all time, 12 Angry Men comes in at an impressive 6th place. This captivating story follows the deliberation of 12 unnamed jurors as they determine the fate of a young man’s life, who is accused of murdering his father. The “hero” of the movie is Juror #8, who at the beginning of the deliberation, is the only juror unsure of the defendant’s guilt. All of the other juror’s came into the room convinced that the young man had killed his father. Juror #8, however, feels that it is only right to interrogate each piece of evidence against the young man before convicting him of murder. Rather than being certain of his innocence at the onset, Juror #8 takes on a critical role as a “Devil’s Advocate” in order to make sure that both sides of the case are given a fair evaluation. As Juror #8 goes through each piece of evidence, the other 11 jurors, one-by-one, begin to doubt their initial certainty. The outcome is, as many of you could guess, that the young man is acquitted of all charges. Good triumphs, the underdog goes free, reason saves the day, and, most importantly, our faith in humanity - not to mention the fairness and impartiality of our judicial system – is redeemed. The perfect recipe for a classic story.
12 Angry Men, despite being a cinematic classic, also provides some important lessons for ADHD advocates. These lessons, however, do not arise from what the story or narrative depicts per se. Rather, what’s instructive about the story is how it idealizes both the judicial process and our assumptions about how individuals typically persuade and are persuaded. Despite the insistence on impartiality and judgement based on facts, the decision-making processes by jurors are often guided and influenced by more fundamental characteristics related to human communication and how people make sense of events. Understanding some of these overarching characteristics in the context of the legal system can actually give insight into how the general public evaluates and “judges” the ADHD controversy in the court of public opinion.
As explained by Walter Fisher, prominent professor (Emeritus) of communication from the University of California’s Annenberg School for Communication, human beings experience, understand, and communicate about life as a collection or series of stories or narratives. Fisher’s Narrative Paradigm helps us understand how all facts and appeals to reason within a specific situation (i.e., the deliberation of a court case) are organized and processed by individuals in a narrative format. As communication and political science professors W. Lance Bennett and Martha Feldman explain in their book, Reconstructing Reality in the Courtroom, “In order to understand, take part in, and communicate about criminal trials, people transform the evidence introduced in trials into stories about the alleged criminal activities” (p. 4). In other words, regardless of how it’s presented, people tend to make sense out of each side’s collection of facts and testimonies through a larger organizing narrative – they tend not to evaluate each piece of information or “fact” in a vacuum.
More importantly, specific narratives related to a situation or context are evaluated not only in comparison to other stories that have similarities (the narrative’s “coherence”), but also in comparison to our own individual experiences and beliefs about the way the world works (the narrative’s fidelity). A hypothetical example might help here. Imagine a friend is telling you about a recent experience at a restaurant that made her or him believe that everyone should avoid it. She or he tells you about how from the moment they stepped into the place, the staff were extremely rude. Even more, the food took 45 minutes to be prepared when no other customers were there, and the food wasn’t even cooked all the way through. The icing on the poorly baked cake was that the server commented on how cheap she or he was because the tip was only 12%. This collection of “facts,” without necessarily intending to, form a type of narrative – at least, this is typically how others inadvertently organize and interpret the information. Someone listening to this story, without realizing they are necessarily doing it, will compare this narrative against other restaurant horror stories that they have heard before (narrative coherence), and their own personal narratives and beliefs (narrative fidelity). Now, imagine that the person listening to this story knows and frequents the restaurant the story-teller is talking about. Not only that, but the listener’s personal experiences at that restaurant have been nothing but pleasant. In other words, the listener has a competing or counter narrative, organized around those personal experiences, that conflicts with the story-tellers narrative – violating the listener’s perception of narrative fidelity. It’s possible that this violation of narrative fidelity will make the listener discredit the story-teller’s narrative as a fluke or an over-exageration. At minimum, it creates doubt in the mind of the listener. Even mere doubt is potentially harmful to a story’s ability to persuade an audience.
The potential persuasive power of narratives shouldn’t be underestimated. In their 2000 book, Minding the Law, Anthony Amsterdam and Jerome Bruner (a civil rights lawyer and cultural psychologist, respectively) explain that, “We now understand that stories are not just recipes for stringing together a set of ‘hard facts’; that in some profound, often puzzling way, stories construct the facts that comprise them. For this reason, much of human reality and its ‘facts’ are not merely recounted by narrative but constituted by it” (p. 111). What this means is that much of the way we perceive the world around us is partially structured through narratives. These can be very specific narratives – such as a story about the experience of an individual. However, these narratives that help structure how we see the world can also be very broadly themed. Common examples of these types of narratives would be the idea of the American Dream or the related Horatio Alger Myth.
This argument applies not only to the court room, but also the court of public opinion – that placeless place where the media interacts with the general public. However, it is mostly these more broadly themed narratives like the American Dream that are problematic for ADHD advocates. Just as these larger narratives tend to structure how we see the world and decide to act in it, ADHD advocates need to understand these narratives in order to construct their own competitive narratives more persuasively. The importance of this is even greater in the court of pubic opinion than in the actual courtroom. The court of public opinion doesn’t offer any formal guidelines for evaluating controversial issues. The danger of doubt becomes much more pronounced because, typically, the general public will form their own opinions in line with the side who’s overarching narrative “rings true” more than the other. In a way, ADHD advocates are in the role of the plaintiff or prosecutor who must prove their case. ADHD critics get the more comfortable role of the defense they technically don’t have to “prove” anything – just cast enough reasonable doubt. ADHD critics have been very successful in this role by drawing on larger social narratives that many people accept as “truth” without discrimination. While this list isn’t complete, nor are all of these narratives necessarily independent of each other, here are some of the overarching narratives I’ve observed being used by ADHD critics:
- Nostalgia for the past: perceptions that the past was simpler, easier, and preferable in contrast to the increasingly complex, chaotic, and disconnected present. (for more info, see the upcoming post about the YMCA’s print advertisement)
- The moral bankruptcy of society: An offshoot of Nostalgia. This narrative claims that the values and associate practices (or lack thereof) associated with contemporary society are to blame for many of the world’s problems. This is the narrative that typically leads stigmatization of families of people with ADHD through mother or parent blaming.
- Personal responsibility or the “boot-strap” narrative: This narrative emphasizes importance of the individual to consciously decide to work hard enough to overcome any obstacle. This can get translated into a narrative about how those with ADHD (or other mental illnesses) can be “normal” if they just try hard enough. The even more damaging inference is that if someone struggles with ADHD, then they are doing so because they don’t care to try hard enough. (my upcoming post about the Vyvanse “You do the Rest” campaign will talk about this more)
- The mental hygiene conspiracy: This narrative suggests that diagnoses like ADHD are part of a movement supported by mental health professionals and the drug industry to make a profit by making people conform to a certain perspective of “normal” thought that squashes creativity and independent thinking. This also relates to the boot strap narrative in that people allow themselves to be “duped” by these groups are looking for an easy way out of personal responsibility.
The implication of these larger narratives for ADHD advocates in the court of public opinion is that messages by ADHD critics often infuse these larger narrative themes into their more specific narratives about possible alternative causes of ADHD or what we “confuse” as ADHD. Rather than having the burden to prove that these specific narratives are “true,” ADHD critics often just have to create doubt in their position as the defense. This can be done by overlaying grander narrative themes within the message that are easier for an audience to relate with – in other words, these grander narratives “ring truer” than the more specific cases being made by ADHD advocates. These grander themes are hard to trump for the general public. The most influential competition to the perceived fidelity of grander themes is personal experience. In other words, those that are likely to find ADHD advocates’ narratives more persuasive than the larger narrative themes in ADHD critics’ messages are already diagnosed with ADHD or personally know and care about someone with ADHD. And now we return to a theme that I started in a previous post: ADHD advocates are preaching to the choir.
So, now the question becomes: How can we learn from all of this? How can we overcome some of these problems?
- The first step is to start seeing and attending to the implicit narrative structures not only in opposing perspectives, but also in those of ADHD advocates.
- Understand that these narratives surrounding the ADHD controversy don’t exist in a vacuum. Just as we tend to organize individual facts into narrative form, we also tend to evaluate narratives in relation to other relevant narratives.
- More importantly, we need to understand how this influences those that should be the most important consideration when constructing a persuasive message – the target audience, skeptics in the general public.
Returning to the realm of making cases in a courtroom, Thomas Hollihan and Kevin Baaske, professors of rhetoric and argumentation and authors of the textbook Arguments and Arguing: The Products and Process of Human Decision Making, explain that each side, the plaintiff/prosecutor and the defense, have similar, but different strategies available to them when constructing narratives. In general, the side with the clearest, easiest to understand, and most complete narrative is often the victor (which are all dependent on the specific audience or jury). While this is a challenge for ADHD advocates - considering all of the different perspectives about ADHD – it is still an important goal to strive for. Considering ADHD advocates get cast as the plaintiff/prosecutor in the court of public opinion, with all if not more of the burden of proof associated with it, more attention needs to be paid to the multiple narrative strategies associated with ADHD critics’ messages (remember, it’s the message we’re mostly concerned with – not so much those that composed it). More importantly, we need to examine the different ways that ADHD critics’ messages create that “shadow of doubt” on the ADHD controversy.
Probably the most important lesson that I hope you take away from this post is a different understanding about how the general public, in their roles as the court of public opinion, make decisions not on independent facts or through critical, unbiased evaluation. It is the narrative that organizes information, and it is through narratives that we need to try and change the conversation.
Having served as the foreperson of a jury recently, I got the opportunity to see the way narratives influence opinion and decision-making for myself. Even after receiving explicit instructions for how we were to judge the trial based on the facts and as impartially as we could, the first impulse of most of the jury members were to reframe everything through each sides’ “story.” Everyone wanted to speculate about what the missing pieces were in the stories. Eventually, I began hearing people propose what they thought were probable substitutions for the missing parts. It was like the worst fan-fiction I have ever read! More importantly, many of these people were coming to what they thought were probable explanations based on generalizations or larger narrative themes that seemed to ring true to them.
What was more interesting was that many of them changed their minds throughout the deliberation process. When they discussed the case in terms of the narratives provided (and also the holes that they filled in themselves), many saw the verdict one way. When I tried to bring the decision back to the independent facts and explicit criteria given to us by the judge, those same people saw the verdict the other way. Ultimately, it was the narrative that won out over critical thinking and reason.
So, far from a dramatization of the real-life criminal justice system, 12 Angry Men represents its own idealized narrative theme that extends beyond the specific story and might account for why it’s still so popular. Sometimes narratives can become so persuasive that even our own experiences are overridden when evaluating their fidelity. And herein lies the difficulty of trying to challenge these larger narrative themes – whether they be associated with the ADHD controversy or any controversy: sometimes it’s not how much the story actually rings true, sometimes its how much you want the story to ring true. The appeal of 12 Angry Men might be in the desire to believe that Lady Justice truly is blind; that if we were ever in the position of the young man who was on trial, those that determined our fate would do so without bias or prejudice. In a way, perhaps, we want to believe in this larger narrative because then we don’t have to confront our own biases that might prevent us from making the right decision. Such is the case with the appeal of larger narratives used in ADHD critics’ messages. Maybe, if those adjudicating in the court of public opinion can latch on to the idealized narratives, then they don’t have to confront their own fears that ADHD might actually be a problem that needs to be addressed with care and consideration.