Do judicial decisions fluctuate with extraneous factors, such as how hungry the Judge is? Of course not, you foolish Suesspicious Minds… Or rather, maybe they do, but only for those American judges, and even then only when they do criminal cases… Or rather, gosh, I don’t want to be last case on before lunch anymore…
One of the joys of writing this blog is that as a result, smart people send me things. One such smart person has sent me this lovely piece of psychological research, by Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso
I love that one of the tags on the research is “legal realism” – I want to become a researcher into legal realism – how do you start, where do you go, who do you need to know?
What these researchers did, was gather information from Israeli criminal courts considering applications for parole. They looked at whether the timing of the parole application had any statistical bearing on the outcome, and judged a “positive outcome” as parole being granted.
Now, the timing ought not to have any impact on this, the cases come in randomly and each case will be judged entirely on its merits.
But that isn’t what the study showed. What they say is that at the start of the day, the positive outcomes were around 65% of cases, and then as the cases got closer to the lunch interval the positive outcomes sank to almost zero. And then after lunch, the positive outcomes went back up to around 65%.
They weren’t able to say for certain whether it was the break that led to the positive outcomes going back up or whether it was the Judge being able to eat during that break, but it was clear that there was a clear decline in favourable decisions for defendants as the sessions went on, with that being wiped clean after a break.
They also look at previous research that suggests that “making repeated judgments or decisions depletes individuals executive function and mental resources which can in turn influence their subsequent decisions”
(If you are interested in whether Judges are creatures of pure reason, that sentence is a bit worrying – suggesting that the more judging you ask one to do in a given period of time, the worse they might do at it.)
This is also interesting – this mental depletion over time tends to lead to the decision that reinforces the status quo being made more often than a decision which significantly changes the situation. Obviously if you are in prison and want the judge to agree to parole, you don’t want the Judge to be drained and plumping for the easy option of the status quo.
Finally, our findings support the view that the law is indeterminate by showing that legally irrelevant situational determinants—in this case, merely taking a food break—may lead a judge to rule differently in cases with similar legal characteristics.
Although our focus has been on expert legal decisions, we suspect the presence of other forms of decision simplification strategies for experts in other important sequential decisions or judgments, such as legislative decisions, medical decisions, financial decisions, and university admissions decisions. Our findings add to the literature that documents how experts are not immune to the influence of extraneous irrelevant information
I am of course sure that our own judiciary are utterly immune to these matters and are made of sterner stuff than our Israeli cousins, but nonetheless, if you are aiming for the status quo to continue, try to get in at about 12.30, and if you want to persuade the Judge to make a change, either get in at ten, or stall until 2.00pm.
And if you have a Judge who is floating the idea of sitting straight through and not having a lunch break at all, you may want to politely decline.
[Suesspicious Minds will buy a pastrami on rye for the first person who can genuinely confirm and independently verify that they have addressed a Judge and handed up this research]
[Edited because I had stupidly put that the study was of American judges, when it was in fact of Israeli judges… ]