The boundaries of acceptance: Do expectations for the complainant's psychological injury affect legal decisions in a sexual harassment case

Jonathan Patrick Vallano, Florida International University

Abstract

Research indicates that people engaged in legal decision-making use a host of biases and preconceptions to guide their decisions about whether the evidence presented to them is reasonable. However, few theories address how such expectations affect legal decision-makers. The present study attempted to determine if social judgment theory (SJT) can explain how and when legal decision-makers rely on expectations for the complainant's psychological injury in a hostile environment sexual harassment case. Two experiments provided undergraduate participants with a written summary of a hostile work environment allegation that first manipulated participants' expectations about reasonable psychological injuries (mild v. severe), and then presented them with actual severity levels of psychological injury (ranging from minimal to extreme). Experiment 1 (N = 295) hypothesized and found that participants who expected severe injuries perceived a greater range of psychological injuries to be reasonable than participants expecting mild injury. Experiment 2 ( N = 202) used similar methodology and investigated whether perceived reasonableness for the injury allegations affected legal decisions. Experiment 2 hypothesized that participants expecting severe psychological injury should render more pro-complainant decisions than participants expecting mild psychological injury. This result should be most pronounced when participants receive a moderate injury allegation, since this allegation was perceived as reasonable by participants expecting severe injury, but unreasonable by participants expecting mild injury. Consistent with SJT, participants who received a moderate injury but expected a severe injury found more liability than participants who received a moderate injury but expected a mild injury. Inconsistent with SJT, participants' expectations did not affect their compensatory damage decisions. In fact, more severe injury allegations increased damage awards regardless of participants' expectations. Although the results provide mixed support for applying SJT to legal decisions in sexual harassment cases, they emphasize the continuing role of oft-unstudied extra-legal factors (juror's expectations and psychological injury severity) on legal decisions. ^

Subject Area

Psychology, Cognitive

Recommended Citation

Jonathan Patrick Vallano, "The boundaries of acceptance: Do expectations for the complainant's psychological injury affect legal decisions in a sexual harassment case" (January 1, 2009). ProQuest ETD Collection for FIU. Paper AAI3395785.
http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/dissertations/AAI3395785

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