July 21, 2005 · Cass Sunstein
An empirical note on group polarization and outrage: A few years ago I was involved in a series of experiments (with Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade), trying to figure out why juries (and others) get outraged, and why they end up imposing high or low punitive damage awards.
Testing about 1000 jury-eligible people, we found that on a bounded scale (1-6 or 1-8, where 1 means not at all outrageous, or no punishment, and 6 or 8 means extremely outrageous, or severe punishment), Americans agree on the appropriate level of outrage and punishment. At least in personal injuries cases, a “5″ is thought, by most people, to be a “5.” Whites agree with African-Americans, old people with young people, poor with rich, well-educated with not well-educated.
The dollar metric produces a lot more variety. People don’t agree on whether a “5″ should be punished with a $1,000,000 award, or a %5,000,000 award, or a $50,000 award. (The study can be found in the Yale Law Journal circa 1998 and also in Cass R. Sunstein et al., Punitive Damages: How Juries Decide, circa 2002.)
But this study didn’t involve deliberating juries. With deliberation, we found some surprises. (a) If the median juror started low on the bounded scale, at say 2, the jury ended up at 1 — a leniency shift. (b) If the median juror started high on the bounded scale, say at 6, the jury ended up at 7 — a severity shift. (c) The jury’s dollar awards were much higher than the median juror’s dollar awards — a BIG severity shift for dollars. In 27% of cases, the jury’s award was as high as, or even higher than, that of the highest individual juror’s awards before jurors started to talk! (This study can be found in the Columbia Law Review circa 2000 and also in Punitive Damages: How Juries Decide.)
A general lesson is this: If people are outraged, and are surrounded by other people who are outraged too, they end up getting more outraged still. There’s a severity shift, often a big one. I speculate that the point bears on political polarization in general — and that it has implications for the blogosphere too.