By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
The 2014 World Series ended yesterday in a 7th game win by the Giants. The game had some recalling the last time the Royals were in the World Series: 1985, where an infamous blown call by the umpire in game six led to a Royals win in game seven. Those are the calls that umpires desperately want to avoid. And recent research shows the lengths they will go to avoid them. A study discussed earlier this week by NPR social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam demonstrates statistically that Major League Baseball umpires fear blowing big calls and have a bias toward making calls that preserve the status quo in any given game. The study is the work of Stanford Business School Ph.D. students Etan Green and David Daniels (2014) who take a surprisingly detailed look at more than a million calls made by 75 Major League umpires and notice several biases, one of the most interesting focusing on a conservative tendency toward safer calls. Etan Green explains, "If you're an umpire and you're unsure about what the correct call is and you're given a choice between one call that's particularly consequential and one call that's relatively inconsequential, they will more or less preserve the status quo." And interestingly, the higher the profile of the game, the greater the associated bias.
Of course, that's baseball and not litigation. But attorneys are often in a similar position of calling the balls and strikes that relate to the strengths and weaknesses of the case. Given that case assessments can carry stakes that are as high as a seventh game in the World Series, these calls can fall victim to the same conservative species of bias. If a case trajectory is heading in a particular direction, toward trial or toward settlement, could there be a tendency to make case assessments that align with that trajectory? The study discussed by Vedantam doesn't say that, of course, but anecdotally, I believe the answer is at least sometimes "Yes." This post shares some thoughts on practices that can lead your case assessments away from the safe calls and toward the more accurate calls.