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Jury Victim Bias


A recent study examined 136 jury cases between 2000 and 2009 involving exposure to toxic chemicals (specifically asbestos, toxic mold and lead poisoning). The jury verdicts show an “indentifiable victim bias” (IVP), causing jurors to make more emotional judgements on cases involving single victims. The larger the number of victims, the smaller per capita damages paid by the perpetrator.

This bias, also known as “Scope-Severity Paradox” is seen by observing general media coverage of world events, such as mass genocide reports. People seem to have a harder time personally relating to larger scale crimes.

In, “Social Psychological and Personality Science”, two experiments were conducted to observe IVB. In the first, participants read two stories of fraud committed by a financial advisor upon his clients. Half of the group read an account where only a few people were victimized, while the other group’s story mentioned how dozens of people were defrauded. When asked to give opinions on the severity of the crime, the advisor who harmed only a few clients faced harsher judgement than the advisor who defrauded many.

In the second experiement, people read a story of how a food company sold tainted products that made users sick. The first group was given a description of the victims, while the second group was given a photo, name and occupation of only one victim. The judgement from the group with the photo was far harsher than the group who were given just a description of many victims.

Some researchers believe the answer is in how people process feelings of empathy. The more people involved, the more difficult it is to empathize with victims as individuals, rather than a group or more abstract demographic.