Society changes: leaders come and go, the economy goes up and down, wars start and end, and now, medical emergencies arrive and (hopefully soon) depart. But through all of that, for the 12 years we’ve measured it, one thing has stayed pretty consistent: People generally don’t like or trust large corporations. Anti-corporate bias has remained remarkably stable with roughly eight in ten people saying that they distrust large corporations.
Our group was recently contacted by an analyst who works in the insurance industry in Zurich, Switzerland. He is looking at changes in the liability claims environment facing insurers and reinsurers, and was struck by the data we have shared using our own Anti-Corporate Bias Scale, specifically expressing surprise that it had remained a relatively stable indicator of American attitudes before, during, and after the last global economic downturn. In this post, I’ll share some data on this stability, and its limits, while also considering the reasons for that stability and what that says to litigators.
Note the Anti-Corporate Stability Over Time
When we developed and tested the Anti-Corporate Bias Scale (a project conducted with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Law-Psychology Program), we found that measuring seven items created the greatest reliability and validity for the scale. While each of the seven scale items show their own pattern of variation, the tendency has been for an attitude of distrust to be high and relatively steady. For example, even through some significant social changes, the percentage who believe that a large company would lie if it benefits from that lie has not changed by more than a few percentage points:
We are currently collecting the data for 2020. When the seven scale items are combined into an average (the method we use when assessing potential jurors), the result is even more stable.
Note Some Exceptions
Even with its stability, we have seen and discussed some variations as well. For example, we have noted that currently, more people express support for increased government regulation, and somewhat fewer feel that there is an excessive number of suits against large corporations. In the context of the current pandemic, we have noted that the kind of company matters, with “Big Pharma” companies getting a boost. We have also observed a tendency for the framing to make a difference; When thinking about customers, companies like Amazon and Walmart are good, but when thinking about workers, they’re not.
Another trend that we’ve seen over time relates to the question of whether there are too many or too few lawsuits against big companies. At some times, possibly driven by economic conditions, we are likely to support more litigation against corporations:
Adapt to the Reasons for Stability
While we have not directly measured the reasons that anti-corporate attitudes have been pretty stable over time, we have had the chance to observe the foundations for these attitudes in our interactions with mock jurors in the course of many mock trials. Based on these interactions, anti-corporate bias seems to be less of a reaction to current events and more of a durable personality dimension. For some, a distrust of faceless power, and a critical attitude toward large profit-driven entities, seems to be a built-in frame of reference that is applied, more or less, to each trial story. Most people have at least some of that built-in bias. For a minority, their clear embrace of capitalism and the promise of continued improvement through commerce, translates into a pro-corporate bias.
For each potential juror, it is useful to treat their corporate attitudes as a heuristic — a cognitive rule of thumb that is activated by the situation and serves as a mental shortcut to evaluation. For that reason, it is often essential to dig into these broad attitudes during jury selection.