Posted Sep 13, 2010 10:30 am CDT
Litigators and journalists likely already intuitively know the findings of a new study on the “scope-severity paradox” and its effect on punishment.
The study (PDF) found that people recommend less punishment for crimes that harm more people, and lower damages for torts that injure more victims. The study authors are Harvard law student Mary-Hunter Morris McDonnell, who is also and Northwestern Ph.D. candidate, and Northwestern management professor Loran Nordgren.
Northwestern explains this “scope-severity paradox” in a press release. “Joseph Stalin once claimed that a single death was a tragedy, but a million deaths was a statistic,” the release says. “New research from the Kellogg School validates this sentiment, confirming that large-scale tragedies don’t connect with people emotionally in the same way smaller tragedies do.”
In one experiment, the researchers found that study participants recommended a longer jail sentence for a fictional financial adviser who defrauded two or three people than for an adviser who defrauded dozens. A second experiment asking study participants to imagine they worked for a company selling tainted food found that people were less likely to blow the whistle when more victims were affected.
A third part of the study examined real jury verdicts in 133 asbestos, lead paint and toxic mold cases between 2000 and 2009. Punitive damages decreased as the number of victims increased. And total damages awarded to each plaintiff tended to be lower as the number of victims increased.
“These findings, taken together, suggest that the scope-severity paradox is likely to prove especially problematic in situations involving mass crimes, such as genocide, where harms are extreme and widely dispersed among a large population of people,” McDonnell and Nordgren write in the study published by Social Psychological and Personality Science. “People presented with such situations may have particular difficulty grasping the extent and severity of the harms that have occurred.”