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Israeli Study Shows Parole Decisions May be Affected by Whether Board Members are Hungry

A ten-month study of over 1,100 parole hearings in Israel indicates that the odds of a prisoner being found suitable for parole seem to be affected by the interval between the hearing and the time the board members last ate, with the odds decreasing dramatically as the length of that interval increases.

The research results of Ben Gurion University Professor Shai Denziger and his colleagues, including researchers from Columbia University in New York, was reported in the April 2011 issue of Discover magazine. Their study tracked the rulings of eight Israeli judges with an average of 22 years of judicial experience; each of the judges considered between 14 and 35 parole hearings a day, spending around 6 minutes on each decision.

The work day of the judges was divided into three sessions, with a food break between each of the sessions (and presumably a breakfast meal before the first session). The results of the study were striking. Within each session, a prisoner’s probability of being found suitable for parole always began at a relatively high 65% and then invariably dropped to about 10-20% by the end of the session. Interestingly, after every food break the probability of a prisoner being found suitable for parole would shoot up again to approximately 65%.

“The [study] shows the consequences of mental fatigue on really important decisions even among excellent decision-makers,” said Jonathan Levav, one of the study’s co-authors. “It is really troubling and quite jarring – it looks like the law isn’t exactly the law.”

The researchers were able to rule out several alternative explanations for their findings. They found no evidence of discrimination, for example, as the judges treated prisoners equally regardless of their gender, ethnicity or the severity of their crime. Nor was there any evidence that any judge acted differently than any other judge, or that any judge had influence over the order in which cases were scheduled or heard.

Importantly, while the likelihood of being paroled was greater for the three prisoners seen at the beginning of each session than for the three prisoners seen at the end, and this pattern persisted regardless of length of sentence or prior incarcerations, the researchers found no evidence that the judges operated on the basis of an unconscious “quota” of favorable parole decisions.

The researchers suggested that, as with all repetitive decision-making tasks, the more decisions one makes and the more fatigued one becomes, the more likely one is to opt for a default choice – which, in the case of parole hearings, is to deny parole. Taking a break, particularly one that involves food, rejuvenates and resets the decision-maker’s mental faculties.


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