Hangry Hanging Judges?
Just because something feels true doesn’t mean it is true.
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It’s rare that scientific findings make headlines and even rarer that they go viral.
When that viral moment happens, the finding inevitably ends up getting viewed as fact. And once something is viewed as fact, once a single study becomes part of the zeitgeist, it’s hard to dislodge the finding, even after evidence accumulates discrediting or disproving it.
This is especially so when the finding is intuitive because things that align with our prior beliefs just feel really “true.”
The famous hungry judges effect falls into this category.
I’d bet you’re already familiar with the effect. In 2011, Shai Danziger and colleagues looked at 1,112 parole decisions by Israeli judges. The judges had two scheduled breaks to eat each day. The researchers wanted to know if there was a measurable difference in the severity of sentences before the food break in comparison to after.
In other words, were hungry judges more likely to dole out harsher sentences than judges who had just eaten?
The researchers found that, at the beginning of the day, 65% of the judges’ rulings were favorable. That percentage dropped practically to zero right before a food break and went back up to 65% right after the judges got something to eat.
The concept of a “hanging judge” is hardly novel. But a hangry judge? Especially, a hangry hanging judge?
That’s going to get a lot of attention.
Doesn’t it make a lot of intuitive sense that a judge’s decision making would be worse when they are hungry or tired? Doesn’t your decision making get worse when you are hungry and tired?
Maybe because it was so intuitive, the finding went viral. It made its way into Scientific American, “Lunchtime Leniency: Judges' Rulings Are Harsher When They Are Hungrier”; The Guardian, “Judges are more lenient after taking a break, study finds”; and an episode of the popular podcast, Radiolab; to name just a few.
And then, at least in the popular mind, it became fact.
In the scientific community, on the other hand, the conclusions drawn from the data were immediately questioned.
The same year, in the same publication, Keren Weinshall-Margel and John Shapard revealed a much more mundane explanation for the harsher sentencing: a quirk of the way sentencing hearings are scheduled.
The scheduling of cases by Israeli parole boards is not random. Unrepresented prisoners’ applications are heard at the end of the session – right before a meal break. And prisoners without lawyers receive parole at a much lower rate.
This alternate explanation for the data was essentially ignored by the media. I mean, the mundane scheduling explanation is just no fun, right? It’s not going to go viral because it’s just so boring.
In a battle between a scheduling quirk and the intuitively sexy idea that hungry judges are mean, hangry will win every time.
As catchy as the concept is, it just doesn’t make much sense that being hungry would have such a giant effect. When it comes to occasion noise, variation in human judgment when the facts are the same but the human judging them does so at different times, hungry judges granting or denying parole 65% of the time when they aren’t hungry versus zero when they are doesn’t pass the smell test, as I wrote about back in back in 2018.
Daniel Lakens noted the issue back in a 2017 blog post (Impossibly hungry judges),
“If hunger had an effect on our mental resources of this magnitude, our society would fall into minor chaos every day at 11:45. Or at the very least, our society would have organized itself around this incredibly strong effect of mental depletion. Just like manufacturers take size differences between men and women into account when producing items such as golf clubs or watches, we would stop teaching in the time before lunch, doctors would not schedule surgery, and driving before lunch would be illegal.”
Even assuming the underlying facts are true, it’s a pretty nutty conclusion to draw in comparison to just attributing the change to the scheduling of unrepresented defendants.
And now, it turns out, the underlying facts may not even be true.
A March 2023, study by Sultan Mehmood and colleagues of 10,000 judges and a half-million cases produced an opposite finding. During the month of Ramadan each year, Muslim judges in India and Pakistan fast from dawn to sunset. The main result: Muslim judges, hungry during Ramadan, were about 10% more likely to acquit for each additional hour of fasting.
The title of the authors’ article in Nature Human Behavior sums it up well: “Ramadan fasting increases leniency in judges from Pakistan and India.”
Will this brand-new study put an end to the massive following of the hungry judges effect? Probably not.
The idea of hangry hanging judges makes for a far too attractive narrative.
The Danziger study was one of many supporting ego depletion, the popular theory that willpower and self-control are limited resources that diminish with use. Roy Baumeister and colleagues kicked off the hypothesis with a 1998 study showing that people who are forced to resist a plate of cookies give up on solving hard puzzles more quickly.
The study, not surprisingly, received massive attention . Several other findings of ego depletion followed, and Baumeister wrote a bestselling book, Willpower, in 2011.
It feels intuitively true that if you exercise (which takes willpower), it will be harder to resist a yummy candy bar (which also takes willpower). Massive media attention plus a finding that feels intuitively right is exactly the recipe for something to enter the popular lore.
And ego depletion did. Just as the hungry judges effect did.
The studies forming the foundation of the ego depletion hypothesis have failed to replicate. But that hasn’t stopped mental health websites from running articles like “How Ego Depletion Can Drain Your Willpower,” or “Ego Depletion: What It Is And How To Prevent It.” The latter article, on BetterHelp.com, has a dateline of April 4, 2023 – just last week – and doesn’t even mention how the validity of ego depletion has been dragged through the dirt for the past seven years.
That makes for a good bet that the hungry judges effect, at least in the popular mind, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
This whole saga offers a good reminder that we need engage in some healthy skepticism about an explanation for something SO pronounced that’s it seems too good to be true, especially when the explanation confirms our prior beliefs. The fact that beliefs, once formed, are so hard to dislodge makes skepticism at the outset even more crucial.
This is just as true of explanations for data that confirm a business thesis or our political beliefs as it is about scientific findings.
A spoonful of skepticism makes our beliefs more accurate.