When it comes to settling or mediating a lawsuit, though what a party agrees to do or not do can be important, an agreement often boils down to numbers. What is the defendant willing to offer and what is the plaintiff willing to accept? Looking at clients’ cases simply as numbers may have an overall negative effect, according to an article in Science Daily.

Boiling down the pros and cons of a potential decision to numbers is a common way of decision-making. According to a recent study repeated engagement with numbers-focused calculations (especially involving money) can have negative results, including social and moral transgressions. The study, co-authored by a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes

Researchers, using several different experiments, concluded that those using “calculative mindset” due to number-crunching are more likely to think about non-numerical problems mathematically, not taking into account social, moral or interpersonal factors.

  • Participants in a set of experiments displayed significantly more selfish behavior in games where they could opt to promote their self-interest over a stranger’s after exposure to a lesson on a calculative economics concept.
  • A similar but lesser effect was found when participants were first asked to solve math problems instead of verbal problems before playing the games.
  • Participants given a history lesson on the industrial revolution were less likely to behave selfishly in subsequent games.
  • Furthermore, the effect could potentially be reduced by making non-numerical values more prominent.
  • The study showed less self-interested behavior when participants were shown pictures of families after calculations.

“Performing calculations, whether related to money or not, seemed to encourage people to engage in unethical behaviors to better themselves,” Chen-Bo Zhong, an associate professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the Rotman School was quoted as saying. He co-authored the study with Long Wang of City University of Hong Kong and J. Keith Murnighan from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Numbers lend themselves to cold calculations, but your cases also involve human beings, the decisions they did or didn’t make and the applicable laws. If you, or your clients, simply focus on the numbers involved in the situation, this study suggests that corner cutting and potentially unethical behavior are more likely to happen. Perhaps if you also take a look at the big picture, not just the numbers, you’ll be better able to keep your moral compass from swinging towards one number or another.