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This is the kind of data that makes me think that so much in our lives is dependent on silly little stuff, that so much about it is unfair, that we may be sophisticated great apes, but so much of our behavior is conditioned by seemingly irrelevant stuff, that it appears futile to really over-analyze anything. Think about this: whether you are convicted or arraigned my depend pretty heavily on whether the judge has just had lunch!


Just look at that graph below, the effect is not negligible. I'm actually astonished.


Justice is served, but more so after lunch: how food-breaks sway th...

There’s an old trope that says justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast”. It was coined by Jerome Frank, himself a judge, and it’s a powerful symbol of the legal realism movement. This school of thought holds that the law, being a human concoction, is subject to the same foibles, biases and imperfections that affect everything humans do. We’d love to believe that a judge’s rulings are solely based on rational decisions and written laws. In reality, they can be influenced by irrelevant things like their moods and, as Frank suggested, their breakfasts.

The graph above is almost the visual embodiment of Frank’s catchphrase. It’s the work of Shai Denzeger from Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and summarises the results of 1,112 parole board hearings in Israeli prisons, over a ten month period. The vertical axis is the proportion of cases where the judges granted parole. The horizontal axis shows the order in which the cases were heard during the day. And the dotted lines, they represent the points where the judges went away for a morning snack and their lunch break.

The graph is dramatic. It shows that the odds that prisoners will be successfully paroled start off fairly high at around 65% and quickly plummet to nothing over a few hours (although, see footnote). After the judges have returned from their breaks, the odds abruptly climb back up to 65%, before resuming their downward slide. A prisoner’s fate could hinge upon the point in the day when their case is heard.

 These rulings were made by eight Jewish-Israeli judges, with an average of 22 years of judging behind them. Their verdicts represented 40% of all parole requests in the country during the ten months. Every day, each judge considers between 14 and 35 cases, spending around 6 minutes on each decision. They take two food breaks that divide their day into three sessions. All of these details, from the decision to the times of the breaks, are duly recorded.

As you might expect, the judges were less likely to grant parole to prisoners who were earmarked as potential re-offenders, or to those who weren’t part of a specific rehabilitation programme. That’s rational enough, but the influence of the food breaks is less so! Denzeger found that the three prisoners seen at the start of each “session” were more likely to be paroled than the three who are seen at the end. That’s true regardless of the length of their sentence, or whether they had been incarcerated before.


Read the rest here.

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The article's abstract:


Extraneous factors in judicial decisions

  1. Shai Danzigera,1,
  2. Jonathan Levavb,1,2, and
  3. Liora Avnaim-Pessoa

+ Author Affiliations

  1. aDepartment of Management, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva 84105, Israel; and
  2. bColumbia Business School, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027
  1. Edited* by Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, and approved February 25, 2011 (received for review December 8, 2010)


Are judicial rulings based solely on laws and facts? Legal formalism holds that judges apply legal reasons to the facts of a case in a rational, mechanical, and deliberative manner. In contrast, legal realists argue that the rational application of legal reasons does not sufficiently explain the decisions of judges and that psychological, political, and social factors influence judicial rulings. We test the common caricature of realism that justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast” in sequential parole decisions made by experienced judges. We record the judges’ two daily food breaks, which result in segmenting the deliberations of the day into three distinct “decision sessions.” 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.

Of course, I would not expect judges to be perfect people, but perhaps I expected them to be more aware of their own moods. I personally do get a bit cranky if I'm hypoglycemic.


I would love to see the same type of study on regular people, not judges, asking them to make moral judgments about a hypothetical person's behavior, I bet the harshness of their judgment changes on a full belly compared with an empty belly.

i think cigarette smokers should be excluded in any study on this topic, i get weird if i haven't had a cig for over 5 or 6 hours,


my nicotene level is below therapeutic, then...ha ha.  Many cig smokers can't go as long as that!! Some are worse than me, and many are better than me, on how long they can go without a puff.


 (i carry mini nicorette inhaler, to use if i get nudgy for nicotene when i can't smoke, it is my one and only "med". i rarely have to use it, but, i like to know it's there.  i'm total addict.)


i wonder how many of the judges were smokers, and had a cig on their lunch break...


Also, many seriously heavy drinkers/ alcoholics, are bitchy if they have gone 3 or 4 days without a drink.  It is very noticable.

  so boozers should be excluded on the study, too.

You SMOKE?? I didn't expect that.

yes, it is my retirement plan, smokers live like, 20 years less than nonsmokers, and i won't be able to afford to live very veyr old, ha ha!!

everytime i quit, i gain 20 lbs and lose 20 friends...


i do however, roll my own cigs to save money, store bought cigs are crazy expensive now.

Hey, I'm not judging, but now I understand why you wog, as oppose to jog or run. I remember from when I smoked (many years ago, but never been a heavy smokers, it was a social thing) and then I quit, my lung capacity went up like nuts, very quickly. I was lucky, I didn't gain weight when I quit, perhaps because I could exercise for longer periods of time.

hard to believe, but i WAS a runner, for many decades of my life, even while an active smoker.  Loved running. 

when i was young, i was very very very fast runner, too.  I had trouble finding anyone who could beat me in a race, for a long time, i was very fast runner.  Surprisingly fast runner.  I would have been track star in highschool if i'd had better attendance, and in college, if i'd had time.


so i'd just read their times, and have someone time me, even without working out regularly, i could beat their top runners.  I ws fast runner.



weird, but true.  Running seemed to help keep my lung size/function up to normal, for a long long time, i *think* i had better lung capacity at the time when i was smoking runner, than a nonrunning nonsmoker, evne in my 40s, i was still a runner,

 Like,i easily ran up down the 8 flights of stairs at work many times a day, where my nonsmoking nonrunning coworkers could not, they'd huff and puff.  (was closed private stairwell for employees only, so, it was okay to run down to supply room in basement to get stuff, etc)


 but, it's all caught up to me now.  mmmMmm.  In my 50s i became a jogger, and now, i am a wogger....

I used to smoke in my twenties and i was a runner, too. I guess young bodies tolerate a lot more than my old carcass would :-)

Interesting, I went to the paper and i could find no mention of smoking or not during their breaks. It is a very good point, I've known smokers that got cranky during long flights, for example.


The mention this in the discussion, that maybe it's not food, it's simply taking a break, though they can't tell because all the judges ate during those breaks.


We have presented evidence suggesting that when judges make
repeated rulings, they show an increased tendency to rule in favor of
the status quo. This tendency can be overcome by taking a break to
eat a meal, consistent with previous research demonstrating the
effects of a short rest, positive mood, and glucose on mental resource
replenishment (11–13). However, we cannot unequivocally
determine whether simply resting or eating restores the judges’
mental resources because each of the breaks was taken for the
purpose of eating a meal. We also cannot ascertain whether taking
a break improved the judges’ mood because mood was not measured
in our study. Furthermore, 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. 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 (19, 20; for
a review, see ref. 21). Finally, our findings support the view that the
law is indeterminate by showing that legally irrelevant situational
determinants—in this case, merely taking a food break—may lead
a judge to rule differently in cases with similar legal characteristics.

We may have Free Will but our Will is easily subverted by extraneous factors.
I remember a thread somewhen else when I talked about variable free will and was immediadely under assault from both determinists and freewillers =)
We were compelled by our past experiences to assail you :-)


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