Why systems and software attract cost-control advocates more than do personal dealings

A piece in the Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 30, Spring 2006 at 90, draws on work by Jonathan Cohen, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Fall 2005. Psychology and neuroscience intersect to suggest why law departments favor impersonal cost-control techniques over personal ones.

Research that uses the so-called switch and footbridge scenarios suggest this preference. In the switch scenario, individuals are asked if they would flip a switch to divert a trolley car onto a sidetrack if it would kill one person but save five others who are on the main track. Most people say yes.

In the footbridge scenario, they are asked if they would push a man off a footbridge onto the track below to save the same five people; in this instance, most people say no. We instinctively recoil from the idea of pushing someone off a bridge – a distinctly personal deed, but if we can flip a switch from a distance – a system-based intervention, we seem able to make the rational choice.

I think this research lends support for my belief that law department managers would rather have remote, depersonalized software cut bills than have to look a partner in the eye and say, “reduce your profit.” Managers like systems – like budgets – to do the dirty work, not hand to hand combat.

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