The affect heuristic

There is a well-documented psychological bias called the affect heuristic. When we observe one virtue in someone, we tend to ascribe other virtues to them as well. One notorious example is that if someone is attractive, we tend to think that they are also more competent, wise, clever, and so on. Repeated studies have confirmed the existence of this bias, and also that people tend to agree that other people are biased in this way, but that they themselves are not (but the studies show that they are, despite their protestations, and even after having been made aware of the bias).

The affect heuristic is one reason why presentation matters. Logically, of course, a brief can be attractive, well-formatted, and free of typos, but also confusing, stupid, and wrong. But if your brief has the first three attributes, that will make it at least somewhat more likely that the judge won’t think it has the last three.

We all learned in third grade that a clear plastic binder won’t salvage a lousy book report, and neither will careful formatting save a brief that is bad on the merits. But once you’ve gotten the content right, pay attention to the presentation. It matters.

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