How Mental Shortcuts Lead to Misjudging

By — on / Negotiation Skills

Adapted from “Blind Justice? Think Twice Before Going To Court” by Chris Guthrie in the April 2007 issue of the Negotiation newsletter.

Judges don’t make decisions based on a thorough accounting of all the relevant and available information. Instead, like all of us, they rely on heuristicssimple mental shortcuts – to make decisions.

As many past articles have noted, heuristics often lead to good decisions, but they can also create cognitive blinders that produce systematic errors.

One such heuristic is anchoring, or the common tendency to for people making numerical estimates to rely on the initial value available to them and to give it greater influence over the final estimate than it should have.

How does anchoring influence judges?

US Magistrate Andrew J. Wistrich, Cornell Law professor Jeffrey J. Rachlinski, and Chris Guthrie found that a demand made at pretrial settlement conference anchored judges’ assessments of the appropriate amount of damages to award.

We gave the judges participating in our study a hypothetical tort case in which the plaintiff had suffered injuries in a car accident caused by a negligent truck driver who admitted liability but disputed compensatory damages.

The judges assigned to a control group learned that the plaintiff “was intent upon collecting a significant monetary payment,” while the judges in the “anchor group” learned that the plaintiff was unwilling to settle for less than $10 million – an unusually large amount for a case of this type and injuries of this degree.

The judges not exposed to the $10 million anchor awarded $808,000 on average; those exposed to the anchor awarded much more – $2.21 million on average.

Anchoring and other cognitive blinders can make it difficult for a judge to reach an accurate decision in your case, another consideration to make when deciding whether to litigate or continue at the bargaining table.

Learn how to negotiate like a diplomat, think on your feet like an improv performer, and master job offer negotiation like a professional athlete when you download a copy of our FREE special report, Negotiation Skills: Negotiation Strategies and Negotiation Techniques to Help You Become a Better Negotiator, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Related Article: Knowledge of Biases As Influencing Tools

The Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School
501 Pound Hall
1563 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
tel 1-800-391-8629
tel (if calling from outside the U.S.) +1-301-528-2676
fax 617-495-7818