Several Israeli judges were the subject of a new study on patterns in the behavior of those making weighty legal decisions. In this case, the judges were reviewing the cases of prisoners who were eligible for parole. The study, carried out by Shai Danziger from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, found a strong correlation between the decisions made by the judges and the where those decisions fell on the judges’ snack schedule.
Looking at over 1,000 parole cases, Danzinger saw that the odds of a prisoner receiving parole from a job dropped dramatically the further the prisoner’s hearing was from the judge’s break. These judges take two snack breaks during a work day, one in the mid-morning and a second for lunch. At the beginning of the day, the likelihood a prisoner will receive parole starts at 65% and then falls dramatically. After each break, the chance of parole shoots back up to 65%, and again begins to fall, and so on.
This might seem like a mockery of the justice system, but Danzinger has a far more human explanation. From Discover:
Danziger thinks that the judges’ behaviour can be easily explained. All repetitive decision-making tasks drain our mental resources. We start suffering from “choice overload” and we start opting for the easiest choice. For example, shoppers who have already made several decisions are more likely to go for the default offer, whether they’re buying a suit or a car. And when it comes to parole hearings, the default choice is to deny the prisoner’s request. The more decisions a judge has made, the more drained they are, and the more likely they are to make the default choice. Taking a break replenishes them.
These judges see 14-35 parole cases a day, and generally spend about six minutes on each. As with all decisions faced by judges, these carry huge consequences both for the prisoner, their families, and the public at large. In that light, the exhaustion hypothesis is extremely attractive as an explanation for the judge’s behavior.
Though some may be disheartened by this study, if Danzinger is correct than it has really only proven that judges are human. As much as we may hope that education, robes, an office of power have transformative effects on people, there is a limit to how much a person can change themselves. Hopefully the insight provided by this study will spur innovations in the meting out of justice that will take the humanity of our judges into account.