John E. Campbell
Christopher T. Robertson
David V. Yokum
Numerous studies have shown that anchoring can have a strong effect on juries. For scholars and policymakers, this evidence is worrisome for the legitimacy and accuracy of jury decisions, especially in the domain of non-economic damages (e.g., pain and suffering). For litigators, this evidence had led to the maxim “the more you ask for, the more you get.” Still, less scholarly attention has been paid to whether an outrageously high request might undermine the plaintiff’s credibility, adversely affect his or her chances of winning at all. This “credibility effect” may be larger than the anchoring effect.
Likewise, little scholarly attention has considered whether a defendant can effectively respond to the plaintiff’s high anchor. One obvious strategy would be a “counter-anchor” – the defendant suggesting a much lower damages award. However, defense attorneys worry that juries may interpret such a strategy as an admission of liability. Thus, in fact, defendants often allow the plaintiff’s anchor to go unrebutted, but this strategy has also not been rigorously tested.
To answer these questions, we conducted a randomized controlled experiment in which we exposed mock jurors to the same shortened medical malpractice trial, manipulated with six different sets of damages arguments in factorial design. Plaintiff demanded either $250,000 or $5,000,000 non-economic damages. The defendant responded in one of three ways: (1) offering the counter-anchor that, if any damages are awarded, they should only be $50,000; (2 ignoring the plaintiff’s damage demand; or (3) attacking plaintiff’s demand as outrageous and using this characterization to argue that plaintiff’s entire case was not credible. Mock jurors were then asked to render a decision on both liability and damages. We then ran these individuals decisions through a computer simulation to create mock jury decisions.
Our study confirmed that anchoring has a powerful effect on the amount of damages mock juries award. However, a large damages demand also had a small negative effect on liability determinations. When looking at the expected value of the case – the average award when both liability and damage award are considered – these “credibility effects” were overwhelmed by anchoring effects. Different defendant’s responses also resulted in different outcomes when plaintiff anchored low, but none of these defense strategies are an effective antidote to the plaintiffs’ high anchor. We discuss implications for litigation strategy and policy.