Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Columbia Business School professor Jonathan Levav about his new study, “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions,” which suggests that factors such as whether or not a judge is hungry affect court rulings.
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Marco Werman: Think of the image of Justice. Blind-folded, objectively weighing the scales of truth and fairness. Judges are supposed to be impartial in their rulings based on careful consideration of the law. But judges are also human, and humans can be influenced by many factors when making decision. A new study suggests that one of those factors influencing judges may be whether or not they are hungry. Jonathan Levav is a professor at Columbia Business School and he’s co-author of a new study published today in the proceeds of the national academy of sciences called “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions”. Professor Levav, you looked at parole judge specifically in Israel, tell me about your study and what you found.
Jonathan Levav: So we looked at parole board decisions, and what we found was that the probably of a favorable decision towards the prisoner, decreased as the number of prisoners went through the sequence. In other words, the first prisoner was much more likely to be released than the second and the third and the fourth and so on. Your likely of release starts at about .65 and then starts coming down. And what we found is that it comes down for a while and then when the judge pauses to have a meal break, either a mid-morning snack or lunch the probably of a favorable decision towards the prisoner pops back up.
Werman: So when you are taking about these prisoners going up for these hearings in sequence you are talking about a sequence across several hours in a day?
Levav: Absolutely, I’m talking about a whole day’s deliberation
Werman: So break it down for us. IF you are an inmate going up for a parole hearing, when should you expect the best reception for your case? First thing in the morning or right before the judge has had lunch?
Levav: First thing in the morning, right after the judge has had his mid-morning snack, and right after the judge has had lunch.
Werman: So it’s a totally visceral thing. IF the judge is full, if he is satisfied in his belly, you might have a better hearing than if he doesn’t, or if she doesn’t.
Levav: Well, we know that the judges in our sample took a break to eat, but we didn’t actually sit there and confirm that they actually ingested food. So we don’t know, is it just the simple act of taking a break for a while that lets you mentally cleanse or is it a matter of taking a break and actually eating. So some people interpret this study and say “Oh maybe they are low in glucose and then you bring their glucose back up and so that gives them energy”. We didn’t measure glucose so we don’t actually know. We just have this sort of very regular pattern of favorable decisions go down. There is a meal and boom they pop back up. Then they go down. Boom there is a meal and they pop back up. So if you are a prisoner you really want to come right after the meal of at the beginning of the day. The problem is that as a prisoner you don’t know where you are going to be in the sequence.
Levav: So this one is really hard to game unless you bring, you know, a bag of candy with you and offer it to the parole board members, which would be quite unorthodox.
Werman: You know we all hope that judges will be fair, but I got to ask you, “How surprising is any of this?” You know, shouldn’t the conclusion be that the people in charge of judges be more vigilant about these kinds of essential human foibles?
Levav: Well so it’s surprising and it’s not surprising, because just as you said these are essential human foibles. It’s not surprising that, you know, people get tired and that the fatigue has effects, so we all have an intuition for what that does. What’s really surprising about this is the context in which, we find it, right. We all have this belief about justice that it’s determinate, and so what’s surprising is that something so almost arbitrary should influence justice. That’s surprising and it’s surprising because the judges in our sample have, you know, an average of 25 years of experience on the bench.
Werman: Do you think you can extrapolate from judges to other professions perhaps and if so, what hypothesis do you have about what these findings might apply to other fields?
Levav: Absolutely. You know, sequential decisions happen in life all the time, so, I don’t think this is at all unique to judges. I think you would find the same thing with doctors or with admissions officers or with funding decisions. In fact the interesting thing is that pilots have all these checks and balances, they have all these checklists that they use exactly in order to overcome fatigue. So some fields have a sensitivity to the fact that people can get tired on the job, whereas in other fields it seems like the expect is just there, you know, in a room for twelve hours in a row and break be damned.
Werman: Columbia Business School professor Jonathan Levav making the case that justice is what the judge ate for breakfast. Thanks very much.
Levav: Thank you.
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