Further deepening my growing suspicions that life may best be described as a series of random events comes this news via Discover Magazine, “Justice is served, but more so after lunch: how food-breaks sway the decisions of judges”. Yeah, that’s right, food breaks.

A Ben Gurion University researcher tracked over 1000 parole hearings over a ten month period, and then plotted this graph:

Think of the X-axis(labeled ordinal position) as stretching from 9 am to 5 pm, as the day goes by*. The Y-axis(proportion of favorable decisions**) shows the likelihood of being paroled. The enormous upward spikes that prevent the parole percentages from falling to less than 0%? Well those are the times the judges ate. Snack and lunch breaks were always documented, and the results speak for themselves.

The study found these outcomes regardless of gender, ethnicity, severity of the offense, number of favorable decisions already made (in other words, no “quota effect”). By far the most likely determining factor seems to be how long it has been since the judge last ate a Twinkie.

There are mathematical formulas for determining whether studies that show differences in populations (in this case, paroled vs. non-paroled prisoners) accurately reflect a cause and effect relationship, but my guess is that over a thousand decisions that can only go two ways (to let him out, or not) probably reaches statistical significance***.

However, why this happens is guesswork. I like the author’s simple explanation(see Occam’s razor):

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.

So, you’re wrapping up cross examination of the last witness, and roughly calculate that after jury charge and closing the case will be sent to the jury around 11 a.m. Should you ramble on for a while to increase the chance the jury will decide your client’s fate either after or during lunch, instead of making a quick decision while they’re at their hungriest?****

[Footnotes:

*It appears to me that at a reported rate of fourteen to thirty five 6-minute decisions per day, the judges may not be nine to fiving these duties, but my point is the same. Also, I’m too lazy to click through all the hyperlinks to read the original study.

**One man’s favorable is another man’s shmavorable decision. The author of the study had the decency to call the decision to parole the inmate favorable, and to send him back to his cell for who-knows-how-long the opposite. Kudos for the empathetic use of vocabulary.

***More accurately, the math can only tell you the confidence interval, and again, while I’m not going to crunch the numbers, see laziness in footnote one, I bet this comes in well over a 95% confidence range.

****The question only makes sense (if it does at all) if you assume the default decision for a jury is “Guilty”. That’s a different blog post entirely.]