Persuasion Matters

Up in Smoke: When Products Fail (Part 1)

Texas is dealing with the worst wildfires in state history.  More than 1500 homes and 34,000 acres have been destroyed, and officials believe those numbers will continue to increase in the days ahead.   As Mother Nature takes her toll, a research study comes to mind.

In a 2003 study conducted by Koehler and Gershoff, a group of University of Texas students were provided with the following legal scenario:  A fire had caused extensive damage to a warehouse.  The fire was caused by either (a) faulty wiring from a fire alarm or (b) faulty wiring from a refrigerator.  The manufacturer of the product in question agreed to pay for repairs and losses.  The warehouse owner sued the manufacturer for additional money “in order to punish it.”  Students were randomly divided into two causation groups: the fire alarm and the refrigerator.

Research participants were asked whether, as jurors, they would require the manufacturer to pay punitive damages. They were also asked to assess their level of resentment and anger toward the manufacturer.

Before we talk about the results, it’s important to point out two key assumptions in the study.  (1) The damage to the warehouse was exactly the same in both scenarios.  (2) Although the fire alarm was a safety product, it allegedly caused the very problem it was intended to prevent– fires!  Had these assumptions been different, the results would have been different.  (We’ll address additional issues in future posts.)

Okay.  Now for the results.

Students in the fire alarm group not only demonstrated more intense feelings of betrayal than those in the refrigerator group, but they were also more willing to award punitive damages.  In addition, students reporting more intense negative feelings (anger, resentment, betrayal) assigned higher damages than those reporting less intense feelings.

The results are probably not shocking, but the research does support what we’ve seen in the courtroom.

  1. Jurors typically want to punish manufacturers more severely if the product that allegedly caused harm was designed to prevent the very harm it ultimately caused (e.g. fire alarms/fire; vaccinations/chicken pox; air bags/death).  Jurors tend to feel more betrayed if the safety product fails to protect.
  2. If jurors feel that the manufacturer, witnesses or key players broke a promise or betrayed their trust, jurors begin to question the way the world works and the social order.  When jurors begin to question what’s fair, just and right, feelings of betrayal come into play.  Their negative emotions are caused, in part, by a belief that a social promise (to protect) was broken.
  3. Angry jurors award more money.  Research proves it, and we’ve all seen it play out in the courtroom.  In this study, there was a positive correlation between negative affect and large damages.  The greater a juror’s feelings of anger, resentment and betrayal…the higher the damage award.

Bottom line:  Jurors have more intense visceral and emotional reactions to allegations of harm involving safety products than non-safety products.  If a safety product is alleged to have caused harm for the very thing it was intended to prevent, feelings of product betrayal are likely to emerge.  And a juror who feels betrayed can be very punitive.

Whether that’s a pro or con depends on who you represent!
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