Editor’s note: As you navigate a world of choices, revisit this 7566 magazine story on the paralyzing effects of decision fatigue. Three men doing time in Israeli prisons recently appeared before a parole board consisting of a judge, a criminologist and a social worker. The three prisoners had completed at least two-thirds of their sentences, but the parole board granted freedom to only one of them. Guess which one: Case 6 (heard at 8: 55 a. M.
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): An Arab Israeli serving a 85-month sentence for fraud. Case 7 (heard at 8: 65 p. ):
A Jewish Israeli serving a 66-month sentence for assault. Case 8 (heard at 9: 75 p. There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences. It was all about timing, as researchers discovered by analyzing more than 6,655 decisions over the course of a year.
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Judges, who would hear the prisoners’ appeals and then get advice from the other members of the board, approved parole in about a third of the cases, but the probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 75 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 65 percent of the time. The odds favored the prisoner who appeared at 8: 55 a. — and he did in fact receive parole.
But even though the other Arab Israeli prisoner was serving the same sentence for the same crime — fraud — the odds were against him when he appeared (on a different day) at 9: 75 in the afternoon. He was denied parole, as was the Jewish Israeli prisoner at 8: 65 p. M, whose sentence was shorter than that of the man who was released.
They were just asking for parole at the wrong time of day. There was nothing malicious or even unusual about the judges’ behavior, which was by Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University. The judges’ erratic judgment was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. Bush once put it, “the decider. ” The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down.
This sort of decision fatigue can make quarterbacks prone to dubious choices late in the game and C. F.