Friday, September 23, 2011

Does the Judge’s Ruling Depend on What the Judge had for Breakfast..or for a Snack?

Last April, the Economist reported on a study of Israeli judges on parole boards making decisions on which defendants would get parole or have their conditions of incarceration changed. Here is what they found:

The team found that, at the start of the day, the judges granted around two-thirds of the applications before them. As the hours passed, that number fell sharply (see chart), eventually reaching zero. But clemency returned after each of two daily breaks, during which the judges retired for food. The approval rate shot back up to near its original value, before falling again as the day wore on.

To explain the findings, the researchers offered two theories:

The researchers offer two hypotheses for this rise in grumpiness. One is that blood-sugar level is the crucial variable. This, though, predicts that the precise amount of time since the judge last ate will be what matters. In fact, it is the number of cases he has heard since his last break, not the number of hours he has been sitting, which best matches the data. That is consistent with a second theory, familiar from other studies, that decision making is mentally taxing and that, if forced to keep deciding things, people get tired and start looking for easy answers. In this case, the easy answer is to maintain the status quo by denying the prisoner’s request.

We recall the old saying of the Legal Realists that a judge’s decision depends on what the judge had for breakfast.


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