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Does mathematical ability make you a better juror?

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

Imagine you were called for jury duty and asked to decide a case where a pedestrian was hit by a car. It was clear the driver was negligent, and now the pedestrian is expected to suffer from extreme pain for two years. How much would you award in pain and suffering? What if the pain were to last for the rest of their life? Jurors frequently have to assign a dollar award to these difficult pain and suffering assessments.

In Numeracy in the Jury Box, Helm and colleagues (2019) were interested in exactly how people make these difficult damage award decisions and quantify pain and suffering. Specifically, they examined how participant’s mathematical ability (known as numeracy) influenced damage awards. Additionally, they provided jurors with numbers (known in social psychology as anchors) that were either related to the case (median lifetime income; they called this a “meaningful anchor”) or less related (courtroom renovations; they called this a “meaningless anchor”).

In most damage award research, people describe the awards without making assessments about the quality of the awards. However, this project contributes to the literature by identifying three ways to assess the quality of award: validity, reliability, and correspondence. Validity is when the award amount increases with the severity of the injury; so, in this study, lower awards should be given when injuries last two years compared to a lifetime. Reliability is when awards are consistent with other jurors (i.e., less variable). Correspondence is when jurors correctly classify their award as “low,” “medium,” or “high” as compared to other jurors.

Helm and colleagues found that jurors who were better with numbers (higher in numeracy) gave better awards (higher validity, reliability, and correspondence). However, as the authors note, selecting only jurors who are more numerate can be extremely problematic practically. It would be hard to give potential jurors math problems during jury selection and it would make the jury pool less representative. Imagine only having jurors who are good at math making decisions! Luckily, the study also demonstrated that providing statistics about income (the meaningful anchor) also improved awards. So, if using only jurors who are good at math is out of the question, helping jurors contextualize award amounts by providing a meaningful anchor may be the most practical way to ease the process of making award decisions.

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