The Sobe Study


The researchers supplied people with Sobe Adrenaline Rush, an “energy” drink that was supposed to make them feel more alert and energetic. (The drink contained a potent brew of sugar and caffeine which, the bottle promised, would impart “superior functionality”). Some participants paid full price for the drinks, while others were offered a discount. The participants were then asked to solve a series of word puzzles. To Shiv’s surprise, the people who paid discounted prices consistently solved about thirty percent fewer puzzles than the people who paid full price for the drinks. The subjects were convinced that the stuff on sale was much less potent, even though all the drinks were identical.

(Why Do We Love Our Dentists? Wired Science.)

Matthew Homann (the [non]billable hour) brings us news of the study, and comments:

What does this mean for lawyers?  Know that your clients hold deep-set beliefs that the value of your advice is tied (even if subconsciously) to the price they pay for it.  In other words, if you’re the lawyer offering the lowest prices on your services, understand that your clients believe your advice is less valuable than the same advice offered by your higher-priced peers.

An unanswered question: do lawyers offering that low-cost advice believe they’re less competent than their higher-priced peers? Just as their clients expect to get what they pay for, do lawyers expect to deliver what they charge for?  What do you think?

Homann is focusing on the subjects’ perception that the cheaper drinks were less potent; this is a point that has been made many times before (thought it will always bear one more making): a client’s perception of the job that a lawyer has done for him is proportional to the fee he has paid. Since clients’ satisfaction is tied to their perception of the job done for them, they are happier when they pay more. It is in that sense that I have long said that lawyers disserve their clients as well as themselves when they charge too little.

But the Sobe study suggests another reason (other than increased happiness) that clients should pay more, rather than less.

The participants in the Sobe study didn’t just feel that they did better when the Sobe was more expensive; they actually did better. The subjects who paid full price for Sobe consistently solved about 40 percent* more puzzles than those who paid discounted prices. That difference was not because of the drink—the drink was the same for both group. Assuming that other factors were controlled for (anyone want to donate a copy of the study?), paying more money for help performing made people perform better.

Application to criminal-defense trial lawyering? Obvious: to the extent that the outcome of a case is dependent on the accused’s actions after a lawyer is hired, the defendant improves his chances of a better outcome simply by paying his lawyer more.

Remember that next time you’re setting a fee: big fees make happy clients in more ways than one.

*Before you quibble, please do the math.


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