Persuasion Matters

close-up of airbag symbol on dashboard

Death vs. Betrayal: When Products Fail (Part 2)

When shopping for a car with an air bag system –if all other things were equal– would you choose Car A, a vehicle with a 2% chance of death from impact, or would you choose Car B, a vehicle with a 1% chance of death from impact plus an extra .01% percent chance of death from the air bag?   Keep your choice in mind as your read this post.

Our previous blog entry discussed an issue common in products liability cases: the perception of safety products gone wrong.  Generally, jurors feel a greater sense of betrayal from safety products than non-safety products and consequently, are angrier and more willing to assess punishment.  Probably not a big surprise.

What might be a surprise, however, is that a number of people literally avoid safety products because of their fear of product betrayal. If you chose Car A in the scenario above, you fall in this category.

Research shows that some consumers can feel so betrayed by a safety product that they will actually chose an inferior option to one that poses a small risk of failure.  This willingness to accept a lesser product to avoid minimal risk of harm is called “betrayal aversion.”

Death or Betrayal?

The Car-A-versus-Car-B scenario mentioned above was researched by Koehler & Gershoff in 2003.   Guess which car most participants chose?  Car A.  Even though death was twice as likely in Car A, participants avoided the risk of product betrayal they associated with Car B.  While bordering on illogical, the results indicate a willingness to accept a greater risk of death to product betrayal.

The Type of Perceived Betrayal Matters

In a similar study (Koehler & Gershoff, 2011), participants were presented with the same car scenario described above with one key difference:  The added .01% risk of death in Car B was further explained in one of three ways.  Death could result from (a) the actual force of the air bag deployment, (b) failure of the air bag to deploy at all, or (c) due to a chain reaction of events (crash shifts the engine, which shifts the steering column, which shifts the air bag, etc.).

Given this scenario, which car would you choose?  Car A (2% chance of death), or Car B (1% + .01%)?  Did your decision depend on the potential causes of the additional risk?

The results of the study depended on how participants perceived the added .01% risk.  The reason for the risk mattered.  If the added risk was perceived as indirect or passive, participants were more willing to accept the risk, and therefore choose the safer option of Car B.  If participants perceived the risk as directly caused by the product itself, they were more likely to choose the riskier option of Car A.

Implications in the Courtroom?

  1. Jurors may feel less betrayed by products that allegedly cause indirect harm rather than direct harm.  Therefore, products perceived as failing to protect because of an inadvertent omission or a system error may be perceived as less offensive or dangerous.  If you are in a position of having to defend injuries or harm, consider developing themes that focus on indirect causation.
  2. Consumers often make better/smarter/safer choices for others than they do for themselves (and yes, there is research to support this, too!).  Addressing the issue of purchasing behavior during voir dire could be helpful for products liability defendants.  Bringing this issue to the jurors’s attention could encourage them to more carefully evaluate the plaintiff’s decision-making choices.
  3. Also consider addressing the psychological concept of “betrayal aversion” during voir dire.  On its face, it seems to emphasize that safety products are unsafe.  However, if the court will allow some leeway and enable you to generally discuss the phenomenon, jurors may have a greater awareness of any negative feelings.  If presented with an alternative reason for the feelings, jurors may attribute those negative feelings to the phenomenon rather than the manufacturer.
By the way, for what it’s worth?  I chose Car A.  Guess I don’t suffer from betrayal aversion… at least when it comes to air bags.
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