Refreshing Judgments

Refreshing Judgments

Prisoners up for parole stand a better chance with a judge who's just had a meal break.


The benefits of a fresh judge. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

There's an old saying that "justice is what the judge ate for breakfast." And there may be some truth to it, according to marketing professor Jonathan Levav of the Columbia Business School. He and his colleagues at Ben Gurion University studied over a thousand rulings by eight Israeli parole board judges. The judges heard an average of 23 cases a day, broken up by a morning snack and lunch.

Depending on the kind of prisoner that you are, you're anywhere between two and six times as likely to be released immediately after a break than immediately before.

That jibes with past research, which shows that hunger gets in the way of decision-making, and that tired decision-makers tend to default to the status quo.

They say, you know what, I can't decide, let me go with what's there already. In the case of the prisoners, the status quo means staying in prison.

I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

We like to think of our justice system as fair and impartial. And judges do indeed have years of education and experience that guide their decisions. However, judges are human, and they are subject to biases and influences that they may not even be aware of. This study shows how simple, unrelated factors may have a significant impact on the judges' decisions, which in turn determine someone's freedom.

You may have noticed that Levav is a professor of marketing. This study actually grew out of his own marketing research. His team had found that when consumers have to make a lot of decisions in a row, they eventually get tired and start defaulting to the status quo (in other words, they say "just give me the usual.") One of their experiments involved choosing the features on a car—color, transmission, stereo system, and so on. And they found that consumers were more decisive at the beginning of the process than at the end, regardless of the order in which the features were presented. 

They wondered if this extended to other, non-consumer situations, and were able to work with scientists in Israel on a set of data from Israeli parole board judges. (The Israeli justice system is similar to the American system for the purposes of this study.) The eight judges made over a thousand total decisions over a 50-day period. The judges had an average of 25 years of experience on the bench. And the prisoners whose fate they determined had committed all kinds of crimes, and came from different ethnic backgrounds.

When they looked at the decisions, the researchers looked that the likelihood of a favorable decision for the prisoner (usually being granted parole, sometimes being transferred to another facility, or having some other request honored). At the start of the day, a prisoner had about a 65% chance of a favorable ruling. But with each successive case, that probability dropped, until it was near zero right before the judge's first break. 

Yet, amazingly, after the judge returned from the break, the trend reset itself, with the first prisoner after the break again having a 65% chance of being paroled. The probability again dropped until lunchtime, after which it reset itself again. This pattern held even when the researchers looked only at prisoners who had committed similar crimes (although, as you'd expect, the overall likelihood of parole was lower for more severe offenders), or only at prisoners of a similar ethnic background (which itself was unrelated to the prisoner's chance of release).

They also looked into whether certain types of prisoners tended to be heard right after a break. But in fact, the order was random. Judges had no knowledge of what cases they would hear before the day began, and the judges themselves set the break times independent of the order of cases. The prisoners' lawyers also had little control over when their clients were seen, and no knowledge of how many prisoners were ahead of them in line. 

The results agree with other findings that sequential decision-making—making a lot of decisions in a row—is a mentally taxing process that becomes more difficult as it goes along. Furthermore, other research shows that low blood sugar can interfere with the kind of higher thinking we use to make decisions. And Levav's own research shows that after making a lot of decisions in a row, people tend to default to the status quo. So, the prisoner's fate seems to be at least partly subject to when they go before the judge.

As to whether this can be "fixed," more information is needed to figure out exactly what the "problem" is. Levav notes that the study doesn't show whether the break or the food is responsible for the judges' change in leniency, or whether both play a role. Also, the study doesn't suggest what the objective outcome of each ruling should be—in other words, whether the judges were too lenient after the break or too harsh before. In fact, there may be no way to answer that particular question. But making judges aware of these natural tendencies could help them work beyond them.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What two factors did the researchers correlate with the judges' decisions?
  2. How were these two factors correlated with the decisions?
  3. What steps did the researchers take to rule out alternate explanations for their findings?
  4. Is it possible for any judge to truly be fair or impartial? Why or why not? What responsibility does a judge have to control his or her personal biases or state of mind when making decisions?

You may want to check out the April 15, 2011, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: The Five Senses: justice and lunch breaks, autism and visual processing, a case of beat deafness, and the hormone of smell. 

Going Further

For Educators

In the Science NetLinks Science Update lesson Touchdown Decisions, you'll hear why pro football coaches' fourth-down decisions aren't necessarily the best for winning games.

In the Science NetLinks Science Update lesson Opinion Repetition, learn how hearing the same opinion over and over again from the same person makes people believe that it's widely held.

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