Human Justice

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  26 Aug 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6046, pp. 1073
DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6046.1073-c

Are decisions made by judges, which are supposed to be made on the basis of facts and legal reasoning, also influenced by outside variables such as ethnicity or even how recently the judge had a meal? Shayo and Zussman examined 1750 small claims court rulings handed down by more than 100 judges in Israel from 2000 to 2004; these court cases were fender-bender traffic accidents in which the plaintiff and defendant were of different ethnicities. They found a pattern of ingroup bias: Jewish judges favored Jewish plaintiffs, and Arab judges favored Arab plaintiffs. By considering the times and locations of civilian fatalities during this period, the authors decompose these decisions into half that were arguably ethnicity-neutral and a more biased half associated with spatial-temporal proximity to terrorism, highlighting that a person's ability to favor their own social group may affect seemingly rational judgments. Danziger et al. analyzed 1100 parole board decisions made by eight judges in Israel in a 10-month period. They document a bias toward retaining the status quo (that is, denying parole) in successive cases adjudicated in a single day. This tendency was eliminated after each of two food breaks, suggesting that cognitive balance can be restored after resource depletion.

Q. J. Econ. 126, 10.1093/qje/qjr022 (2011); Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 108, 6889 (2011).

Navigate This Article