Dateline: August, 2011, Issue 2

When does "if only" thinking affect jurors' verdicts about accidents?

Our reactions to events are determined not only by what actually happened, but also by what might have happened. Jurors think about what might have happened using "if only" statements: if only a driver had been going slower, if only a worker had been wearing goggles, if only the warning label had said so, if only a company had investigated the complaint. These "if only" thoughts are called counterfactual thinking.

Sometimes it is easy for jurors to engage in counterfactual thinking and imagine events occurring otherwise, and sometimes it is hard to do so. The ease with which jurors can imagine alternative events affects their understandings and verdicts.

Kahneman and Tversky (1982) investigated how mock jurors understand a driver's emotion when a car accident is preceded by either a routine event or an exceptional event. Mock jurors were told about two men, Mr. Adams and Mr. White. Mr. Adams was involved in an accident when driving home from work on his regular route. Mr. White was involved in a similar accident when driving on a route that he only takes when he wants a change of scenery. Although the two drivers suffered the same fate, mock jurors predicted that Mr. White would be more upset than Mr. Adams. Jurors could more easily imagine events occurring otherwise for Mr. White than for Mr. Adams because what preceded the accident was atypical ("If only Mr. White had taken the normal route home").

Miller and McFarland (1986) investigated mock jurors' awards of compensatory damages to accident victims based on whether the accident occurred in a location commonly frequented or never before visited by the victim. The victim was injured after being caught up in a robbery in a store. Half of the mock jurors were told that this robbery occurred in a store the victim commonly frequented, while the other half were told it occurred in a store the victim did not commonly frequent but had decided to visit just for a change. Mock jurors awarded over $100,000 more for the injury when it occurred in the unusual, than in the usual, store. Jurors found it easier to imagine events occurring otherwise when the location of the accident was atypical ("If only the victim had gone to the usual store").

Macrae (1992) conducted two studies focusing on mock jurors' liability judgments for accidents surrounded by circumstances that were either routine or atypical. In the first study, mock jurors were told about a food poisoning incident at an Indian restaurant that the victim either ate at regularly (for half of the mock jurors) or had never before visited (for the other half). In the second study, scaffolding fell from a building and struck a passerby who either always walked that route to work (for half of the mock jurors) or had taken a different route to work that day for a change of scenery (for the other half). Despite the injury being described identically for the mock jurors in each of the studies, the defendant involved in the atypical situation (owner of never before visited restaurant; owner of scaffold on different route) was judged more negligent and deserving of a harsher fine than was the defendant in the routine situation (i.e., owner of restaurant regularly ate at; owner of scaffold along regular route). Jurors found it easier to imagine events occurring otherwise when the location of the event was atypical ("If only the victim had gone to the regular restaurant / walked along her regular route").

In sum, jurors engage in counterfactual thinking when considering accidents, and the ease with which jurors can imagine alternative events affects their understanding of the what happened and their verdicts. It is easier for jurors to imagine a routine alternative for an exceptional situation than to imagine an exceptional alternative for a routine situation.

Source Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1982). The simulation heuristic. In D. Kahneman, P. Slovic & A. Tversky (Eds.), Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases (pp. 201-208). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Source Miller, D.T. & McFarland, G. (1986). Counterfactual thinking and victim compensation: A test of norm theory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 12, pp. 513-519.

Source A tale of two curries: Counterfactual thinking and accident-related judgments. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, pp. 84-87.