Is Justice Determined By What The Judge Ate For Breakfast?

What if your chances of a judge ruling in your favor depended on whether he or she had recently eaten? And what if a judge was more likely to rule in your favor shortly after eating but was less to do so before lunch time?

PNAS, Volume 108. Issue 17, April 26 2011

PNAS, Volume 108. Issue 17, April 26 2011

Shai Danziger and Liora Avnaim-Pesso of Ben Gurion University in Israel and Jonathan Levav of Columbia Business School published an article on Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (pnas.org) titled “Extraneous factors in judicial decisionsaddressing this exact issue. The article discusses the results of their empirical study of Israeli judges and the effect of the timing of food breaks on their decisions:

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.”

The authors found a correlation between favorable rulings and recent food consumption.  So, what does this mean for legal consumers?  Well, for starters, timing may be important:

We find that the likelihood of a favorable ruling is greater at the very beginning of the work day or after a food break than later in the sequence of cases.

Ultimately, this study reinforces the idea that the outcome of any lawsuit, even a “slam dunk,” is not predictable.  It appears that the outcome can depend on a number of extraneous factors including judicial snacks.

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 . . . . 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 have blogged before that justice is not always just, and that the judge who presides over your case can have an enormous impact on the outcome.  Now it appears that whether the judge has recently eaten can have an impact as well.

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