That indispensible newspaper, the Economist, includes an amazing and disturbing article this week on judicial decision-making. The article profiles exhaustive research on parole decisions made by Israeli judges. The good news is that neither the sex nor ethnicity of offenders influenced parole decisions. The less good news is that the rate of denying parole was strongly related to how long it had been since the judge had a break for lunch. Judges being people, they become tired after hearing many cases without a break, and opt for decisions that take less mental effort, in this case keeping the prisoner in prison.
In the same vein, I was at a meeting last week with Professor Rob MacCoun in a room with a long, executive style table. He sat at the end with a window behind him, and I mentioned that psychological research had shown that those two factors tended to make people more convincing when a group seated at a table has a debate. He responded by relating some fascinating research in one of his areas of expertise: jury behavior.
Juries overwhelming elect men as their head juror, a potentially influential role. For some time the usual explanations of this phenomenon were popular among social scientists (e.g., widespread sexism), but then scientific attention turned to the possible effects of seating. When men enter a jury room that has a rectangular table, they almost always sit at the head. And sitting at the head gives a juror a big advantage in the election of head jurors. If you manipulate the situation by letting women enter the jury room first, or by using a round table, the proportion of juries who elect women as head juror soars.