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What “12 Angry Men” Teaches Us about the Art of Persuasion

This acclaimed courtroom drama offers valuable lessons for science communicators

Bill Sullivan

We often find ourselves at an impasse with others and wonder why they can’t see things our way. Our conversations sour as frustrations mount and tempers flare. The promise of a healthy dialogue quickly deteriorates, and relationships erode as a result.

Scientists and physicians often become flustered, baffled, and even outraged when communicating with a public that is awash in misinformation. Experts can lose sight of what it is like to be surrounded by a whirlpool of confusing and contradictory news and opinion. How do you get through to someone who is skeptical of evolution, climate change, GMOs, or vaccines?

The 1957 film 12 Angry Men is a master class in the art of persuasion that can teach us how to have more constructive conversations. The film takes us inside a jury deliberation following a murder trial. The defendant is an 18-year-old boy from the “slums” who is accused of murdering his father. A guilty verdict puts him in the electric chair.

In a preliminary vote, 11 members of the jury find the boy guilty. But there is one holdout: Juror #8. Played by Henry Fonda (and referred to as Henry hereafter), Juror #8 faces the daunting task of persuading the others to reconsider their verdict.

Spoiler alert: The rest of this article contains spoilers from the film.

The first thing to note is Henry’s quiet courage and humility. Henry realizes that he’s in the minority of opinion, but he refuses to cave to peer pressure. He gently stands his ground and admits that he could be wrong. He merely states that a young boy’s life is at stake—a decision that, in his view, is worth more than five minutes of discussion.

During disagreement, it’s easy to take things personally and lose control of your emotions. Many people identify with their opinions and beliefs so intently that they take opposition as an insult. With his humility, Henry not only avoids this trap, but he also signals to the other jurors that he is keeping an open mind. He makes it clear that he’s prepared to vote guilty if they can persuade him to do so.

As the jurors review the facts of the case, which includes accounts from two witnesses, Henry patiently asks questions that introduce reasonable doubt into the prosecution’s case. In addition to the details surrounding the case, Henry is equally inquisitive about how the others see the facts differently. His persistent curiosity helps others see past their kneejerk reactions and prejudice.

Curiosity is key. When we encounter someone with different beliefs, we can be hasty to judge. We may dismiss them as stupid, ignorant, or lazy. None of this is helpful, and we detect no such animosity from Henry during the deliberations. When differences are voiced, our instinct is to prove that we are correct. Instead, we should ask questions and listen carefully. Try to uncover the experiences that have led them to their beliefs. Knowing where someone is coming from makes it easier to point them towards a new direction.

Henry is a thoughtful person who practices compassion and perspective-taking. He asks his fellow jurors to pretend that they’re on trial and at the mercy of a jury. Wouldn’t they want the members of that jury to examine the evidence with utmost care instead of rushing to a decision?

He also asks the jury to imagine the difficult life the boy has endured being raised in poverty with an abusive father. He is not arguing that adverse circumstances excuse criminal activity, but he is asking the jurors to walk a mile in the boy’s shoes. Henry is reminding the jury that there may be more to the boy’s story than the cold hard facts reveal. Henry’s compassion towards the accused prompted him to take a closer look at the facts, and his curiosity soon found flaws in the case. His compassion and curiosity became contagious and other jurors began to raise important questions as well.

When we are trying to be persuasive, it is important to keep in mind that opinions and beliefs are not formed in a vacuum. It takes compassion to learn how someone became the type of person they are. The person you see is merely the tip of the iceberg. Caring enough to know what lies beneath the surface will help you make sense of their actions.

Two people can look at the same set of facts and reach different conclusions because those observations are filtered through our unique life experiences. Seeing things through their eyes—taking their perspective—can help you identify their values. You may then be able to frame your position in a way that is consistent with what is most important to them.

As the jury continues deliberations, Henry maintains his calm demeanor and humility. Broadcasting that you are open to changing your mind keeps the dialogue going, and being respectful maintains civility. Keeping the dialogue alive helped Henry, as some of the jurors began to trip on their own arguments. Hypocrisy was laid bare as some of the jurors realized they accepted witness testimony that supported their verdict and rejected that same witness when they did not support their verdict. 

We can often get others to question their beliefs simply by allowing hypocrisy to expose itself through dialogue. Asking questions about someone’s worldview may lead them to rethink whether it aligns with the values they cherish. As in the movie, minds are more likely to change when people believe they have autonomy over that decision. The trick is less about you persuading them and more of you getting them to persuade themselves.

Even as some jurors change their vote, Henry refrains from gloating. This is important to maintain an air of open-mindedness and respect. Any gains made in connecting with someone can be severed by arrogance and pride. Even when the final juror relents and says, “Not guilty,” Henry responds by placing his hand on the man’s shoulder and helping him put on his jacket. It is a touching exchange that silently says, “I know how hard this was for you and I respect you all the more for it.”

We can summarize Henry’s effective persuasion strategy with “Three Cs”: calm, curious, and compassionate. It is never easy to see eye to eye on many of the issues that divide us, but employing Henry’s style will go a long way in bridging the chasm.

BILL SULLIVAN is the Showalter Professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology at the Indiana University School of Medicine and author of Pleased to Meet Me: Genes, Germs, the Curious Forces That Make Us Who We Are. He is a member of the PLOS SciComm editorial board and Chair of the editorial advisory board for ASBMB Today. He has been featured in a wide variety of outlets, including CNN, Fox & Friends, The Doctors, TEDx, Science Fantastic with Dr. Michio Kaku, and more. He has published over 100 papers in scientific journals and has written for National Geographic, Discover, Scientific American, Washington Post, Psychology Today, and more. Learn more at his author website or X/Twitter (@wjsullivan).

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