From Meaning to Money: Translating Injury Into Dollars

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Legal systems often require the translation of qualitative assessments into quantitative judgments, yet the qualitative-to-quantitative conversion is a challenging, understudied process. We conducted an experimental test of predictions from a new theory of juror damage award decision making, examining how 154 lay people engaged in the translation process in recommending money damages for pain and suffering in a personal injury tort case. The experiment varied the presence, size, and meaningfulness of an anchor number to determine how these factors influenced monetary award judgments, perceived difficulty, and subjective meaningfulness of awards. As predicted, variability in awards was high, with awards participants considered to be “medium” (rather than “low” or “high”) having the most dispersion. The gist of awards as low, medium, or high fully mediated the relationship between perceived pain/suffering and award amount. Moreover, controlling for participants’ perceptions of plaintiffs and defendants, as well as their desire to punish and to take economic losses into account, meaningful anchors predicted unique variance in award judgments: A meaningful large anchor number drove awards up and a meaningful small anchor drove them down, whereas meaningless large and small anchors did not differ significantly. Numeracy did not predict award magnitudes or variability, but surprisingly, more numerate participants reported that it was more difficult to pick an exact figure to compensate the plaintiff for pain and suffering. The results support predictions of the theory about qualitative gist and meaningful anchors, and suggest that we can assist jurors to arrive at damage awards by providing meaningful numbers.

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