Study reveals fatigue linked to unfavorable court rulings

Well-rested judges more likely to grant parole; research included 1,000 court decisions.

21 judges 311 (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
21 judges 311
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
According to a new study by Ben-Gurion University and Columbia University, fatigue negatively influences the rulings of judges sitting on parole hearings.
Indeed, the study, published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that judges are statistically more apt to rule in favor of granting parole when rested.
The researchers, Prof. Shai Danziger from BGU’s Faculty of Business and Management, Columbia Business School Prof.
Jonathan Levav and BGU graduate Liora Avnaim-Pesso, studied more than 1,000 parole decisions made by eight experienced judges in Israel over 50 days, in a 10-month period.
The researchers found that a judge’s willingness to grant parole can be influenced by the time between their latest break and their current hearing.
“We test the common caricature of realism that justice is ‘what the judge ate for breakfast’ in sequential parole decisions made by experienced judges,” stated the researchers in their paper. “Our findings suggest that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.”
The researchers found that after a snack or lunch break, 65 percent of cases were granted parole. The rate of favorable rulings then fell gradually – sometimes as low as zero – within each decision session, but would return to 65% after a break.
“The evidence suggests that when judges make repeated rulings, they show an increased tendency to rule in favor of the status quo,” said Levav. “This tendency can be overcome by taking a break to eat a meal – which is consistent with previous research that demonstrated the positive impact of a short rest and glucose on mental resource replenishment. However, food might not be the only factor; sometimes a mental break can yield a similar result.”
The current study does not determine if it was rest or eating that altered the judges’ decision-making processes. The mood of the judges was also not measured.
“However, the results do indicate that extraneous variables can influence judicial decisions, which bolsters the growing body of research that points to the susceptibility of experienced judges to psychological biases,” Danziger said.
Danziger added that the reason they chose to examine parole boards is that it offers the opportunity to witness and record multiple decisions in a short period of time.
“Had we gone to the district court, we also would have been able to record decisions – but they come less frequently, and it is more difficult to measure the parameters,” said Danziger.
“The theory determines that decision-making capacity is a limited resource, and when many decisions are made in sequence, the mental capacity diminishes.
“That’s when people start using shortcuts and rely more on the status quo,” Danziger continued. “For a judge, ruling to deny parole is the simpler decision. The prisoner is already in jail, and that becomes the fallback position.
The harder decision – the one that could end with a released prisoner committing a crime, and all the fallout that goes with it – becomes less likely as mental fatigue wears in.”
Danziger added that an alternative explanation for the findings – which would suggest that the schedule for hearings is determined by the severity of the offenses – was examined, and ruled out. He said the researches found the hearing schedule was randomly fixed on a first come, first serve basis.
“Moreover the parole-committee members themselves decide when to take the break, so that rules out a rigged system,” Danziger explained.
He added that similar findings were produced from studies of consumers, indicating that “fresh” shoppers were more selective in their choices, than those who had been at it for a while. “We are the first ones to test the theory on professionals, though,” Danziger said.
“Although we interpret our findings through the lens of mental depletion, we do not have a direct measure of the judges’ mental resources and, thus, cannot assess whether these change over time,” he added. “Nevertheless, our results do indicate that extraneous variables can influence judicial decisions – which bolsters the growing body of evidence that points to the susceptibility of experienced judges to psychological biases.
“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.”