Judges’ Level of Empathy Correlated with Time of Day

Tired, Hungry Judges Are Mean

We’ve previously noted that – contrary to the naive belief of many – judges are political animals.  See this, this, this and this.

But they’re also just plain animals … like everyone else. Yes, they have minds and souls, but they also have bodies with physical sensations, needs and urges which effect their decisions.

Specifically, behavioral researchers documented in a 2010 edited by famed behaviorist Daniel Kahneman that judges’ level of empathy rises right after they’ve had a snack and a break … and plummets when they haven’t had either for some time

Randal Olson summarizes:

The researchers analyzed 8 experienced judge’s decisions on parole requests as a function of time of day. The judges reviewed about 35 cases per day, spending about 6 minutes on each case. On average, the judges approved only 36% of the parole requests presented to them each day, so the chances of having a positive judgement on your case are already bleak.Now, we’d expect judges — of all people — to be the best at making impartial decisions. If no external factors were affecting their decisions, we’d expect to see them consistently approving about 36% of the parole requests throughout the day.

Let’s take a look at what the researchers found.

Proportion of parole requests approved as a function of what order they were reviewed in.

Each tick on the x-axis denotes every third case.
Circles denote when the judges took a food break….

Shockingly, the judges appear to be much more inclined to approve a parole request when they’ve just come off a break. In contrast, they reject far more requests than usual the closer they get to break time — and nearly 100% of the requests just before they take a break.


In the judges’ case, once a sufficient number of cases had worn them down, they started defaulting to rejecting every case put in front of them until it was break time. That means that perfectly eligible prisoners had to spend even more time in prison because the judge hadn’t eaten his mid-morning snack.

Yet more proof that humans don’t make decisions in a vacuum ….

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