Tag Archives: damage awards

by Pooja Shah '17

0704_14_002Cornell psychologist Valerie Reyna, along with co-investigator Valerie Hans from the Cornell Law School, has received a $390,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to better understand damage award decision-making.

Juries are often at sea about award amounts, with widely differing outcomes for cases that seem comparable. To make sense of this process—and, ultimately, improve the process of juror decision-making—the grant builds on evidence-based scientific theory developed at Cornell.

Reyna, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, said the research seeks to identify the causes of inconsistent jury awards and to test credible and cost-effective solutions that could reduce unwarranted inconsistency. Researchers will apply fuzzy-trace theory, believing that jurors often understand the gist of damages but have difficulty mapping verbatim numbers (dollar awards) onto that gist.

Currently, jurors are provided with limited guidance by the legal system and are presented with injuries that are often difficult to value. For instance, Reyna said, how do we value the loss of a spouse, the pain of a severe physical injury, or the inability to hug a child?  Researchers will evaluate the effectiveness of potential legal reforms—such as providing meaningful numbers as benchmarks and “scaling” instructions that place damages in perspective. Preliminary evidence suggests that such behavioral nudges can improve the process of translating a qualitative human injury into a quantitative monetary award.

Reyna, along with Hans and Cornell students, recently published a related paper, “The Gist of Juries: Testing a Model of Damage Award Decision Making,”  in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. (Read more about the paper in the Cornell Chronicle.)

The grant was made by the NSF Law and Social Sciences Program, which supports interdisciplinary research proposals that promote a greater understanding of the connections between law and human behavior while advancing scientific theory.

For juries awarding plaintiffs for pain and suffering, the task is more challenging – and the results more inconsistent – than awarding for economic damages, which is formulaic. Now, Cornell social scientists show how to reduce wide variability for monetary judgments in those cases: Serve up the gist.

As an example of gist, juries take into account the severity of injury and time-scope. In the case of a broken ankle, that injury is a temporary setback that can be healed. In an accident where someone’s face is disfigured, the scope of time lasts infinitely and affects life quality. In short, “meaningful anchors” – where monetary awards ideally complement the context of the injury – translate into more consistent dollar amounts.

Valerie Reyna

Valerie Reyna

“Inherently, assigning exact dollar amounts is difficult for juries,” said Valerie Reyna, professor of human development. “Making awards is not chaos for juries. Instead of facing verbatim thoughts, juries rely on gist – as it is much more enduring. And when we realize that gist is more enduring, our models suggest that jury awards are fundamentally consistent.”

The foundation for understanding jury awards lies in the “fuzzy trace” theory, developed by Reyna and Charles Brainerd, professor of human development. The theory explains how in-parallel thought processes are represented in your mind. While verbatim representations – such as facts, figures, dates and other indisputable data – are literal, gist representations encompass a broad, general, imprecise meaning.

VHans Chronicle

Valerie Hans

“Experiments have confirmed the basic tenets of fuzzy trace theory,” said Valerie Hans, psychologist and Cornell professor of law, who studies the behavior of juries. “People engage in both verbatim- and gist-thinking, but when they make decisions, gist tends to be more important in determining the outcome; gist seems to drive decision-making.”

In addition to authors Reyna and Hans for the study, “The Gist of Juries: Testing a Model of Award and Decision Making,” the other co-authors include Jonathan Corbin Ph.D. ’15; Ryan Yeh ’13, now at Yale Law School; Kelvin Lin ’14, now at Columbia Law School; and Caisa Royer, a doctoral student in the field of human development and a student at Cornell Law School.

The research was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, Cornell’s Institute for the Social Sciences, the Cornell Law School and Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.

Update: On Sept. 1, 2015, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant for $389,996 to Cornell for support of the project “Quantitative Judgments in Law: Studies of Damage Award Decision Making,” under the direction of Valerie P. Hans and Valerie F. Reyna.