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The automatic influence of advocacy on lawyers and novices

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It has long been known that advocating for a cause can alter the advocate’s beliefs. Yet a guiding assumption of many advocates is that the biasing effect of advocacy is controllable. Lawyers, for instance, are taught that they can retain unbiased beliefs while advocating for their clients and that they must do so to secure just outcomes. Across ten experiments (six preregistered; N = 3,104) we show that the biasing effect of advocacy is not controllable but automatic. Merely incentivizing people to advocate altered a range of beliefs about character, guilt and punishment. This bias appeared even in beliefs that are highly stable, when people were financially incentivized to form true beliefs and among professional lawyers, who are trained to prevent advocacy from biasing their judgements.

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Fig. 1: Regression coefficients and 95% CIs corresponding to the influence of advocacy incentives on all dependent measures across all experiments.

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The data that support the findings of this study are available at

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The custom code that supports the findings of this study is available at

Change history

  • 18 September 2020

    In the version of this article originally published, there was a typographic error in the last sentence of the second paragraph. This has been corrected in the HTML and PDF versions.


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We thank P. Ellsworth, A. Shanor, J. Sun, A. Irgens, C. Cusimano and L. Drayton for contributions that aided in the development of this manuscript. We declare no specific funding for this work.

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D.E.M. and N.S. conceptualized, designed and performed the research and wrote the paper. D.E.M. analysed the data.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David E. Melnikoff.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editor: Charlotte Payne.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1 and 2, Supplementary Methods and Supplementary Results.

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Melnikoff, D.E., Strohminger, N. The automatic influence of advocacy on lawyers and novices. Nat Hum Behav 4, 1258–1264 (2020).

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