Fatigue, Snacks, and the Quality of Judicial Decisions

Complex judgments are fragile.

It’s considered good advice to enter a grocery store only after making a shopping list to reduce your vulnerability to impulse buying. Merchants put a lot of thought and strategy into structuring displays to encourage customers to spend a bit more than they intended. It’s also risky to grocery shop when hungry because your own appetites can undermine you without much help from the grocers’ strategies.

Three researchers, Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso, examined judgments of Israel’s largest parole board. This board makes consequential decisions. It decided whether prisoners would be granted parole from their prison sentences. The larger society reasonably has a serious stake in assuring these judgments reflect the evidence and remain free of extraneous influence.

What they found says something about the rhythms of the workday and our capacity to sustain energy levels.

Although cases appeared on the agenda in random order, the judges were much more lenient with cases that they heard immediately after a break. That is, they granted parole to 65% of the cases that they heard immediately after break. They rarely if ever granted parole to the last case heard before the next break or the end of the day.

“We find that the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from ?65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ?65% after a break. Our findings suggest that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.”

A lesson from this study is that a sustainable lifestyle—especially regarding worklife—has far-reaching and unexpected consequences.

A point to consider:

Listen to your energy level.

  • Your subjective sense of energy may have useful information.
  • If you feel tired and hungry, you may be inclined towards more conservative decision making.
  • If you feel satisfied and comfortable, you may be inclined towards greater generosity.

One more point: the study did not consider the quality of the decisions. That is, the authors do not know whether the more generous or the more conservative approval rate is better. Ultimately, the question is which decision pattern more closely maps the society’s criteria for justice. The study established that extraneous factors have entirely too much influence on the board’s deliberations.

And, good academics they are, the authors recommend further research to answer that more thorny question of quality.

To read about the study: visit Risettri News archive

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