Does a Happy Tummy Make Better Judgment?

This is just to catch your eye. Photo by Patrick Kalkman on Unsplash

Been a while since I shared something! This year has been unexpectedly unproductive due to working from home becoming more ineffective with each passing day, general fatigue, stress, and playing through a series of 7 video game titles, each taking about 50–60 hours.

To think for the first few weeks I thought it’d mean less work and more me-time. Heh, anyways..

I was working on this project at work where we are helping an institution trying to help small businesses by giving the “grants” of some sort. So during this pandemic, business is bad as you can imagine, with Small — Medium Enterprises (SMEs) taking the brunt of it, hence they could do with some help, preferably money. But of course, the institution can’t just give away cash to everyone, they have got to actually select which of these SMEs are worthy of their help. So they had these several thousand SMEs to submit applications. That’s where my firm comes in. We are to help them assess these applications and score them accordingly.

Each member of the team was given several hundred applications to be reviewed. We were given some kind of “guidance” or standard for scoring the applications. There were some essays in some parts of the application, and this is where things get difficult.

We do have a guidance on how to score, but at the end of the day it is still our judgment to classify some applications as “bad”, “good”, or “great”. And it can be quite challenging to judge the application essays with each loosely defined criterions. With 10 applications it’s manageable. But when it’s several hundred, consistency became a problem.

Imagine you doing it. The first application is decent but nothing special, you give it 65. Sixty applications later, application #61, is actually pretty similar to the first application, but you already forgot about the first application. You somehow found this application #61 a little bit lacking, you gave it 50.

This is a problem. This means I could be assessing these applications by not being completely objective and consistent. I may inadvertently jeopardize someone’s livelihood just by being…inconsistent. Again, we do have a (loosely defined) guidance, but you don’t expect someone to keep a mental note of 60 of their past assessments and ensure the next 61–120 is in line with that first 60.

Well, I don’t, at least.

Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions (Danziger et al., 2011)

This is just to give the page some color lah. Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Much to my relieve, consistency in judging or assessing something has also been a topic of interest of researchers. One of which that appeals to me the most for this particular case is this paper, or if you don’t have so much time on your hand, this piece of journalism. It’s kind of refreshing to know that there are judges whose decision on whether a prisoner deserves a parole (like a request to be released earlier from prison before the sentence term is fully served, usually justified by good behavior during time in prison) or not hinges on if he made the decision first thing after lunch, I don’t feel as bad now.

I’ll give you the short version, you can read the full paper later. So there is this study on Jewish-Israeli judges decision on whether to approve or deny parole request from prisoners. In a given day, a judge is given a “morning snack break” and a “lunch break”. The judges are free to decide the time, usually morning snacks are around 10 AM, while lunch breaks are around 1 PM. Other than that, the judges will be entrusted to judge various cases and requests. The judges do not know which case they will be judging next, and the sequence of which prisoner goes first is not under their control.

After crunching some data, the study finds that the only factors that are somehow significant to the parole decision are:

  • Prior cases of incarceration (is this guy a repeat offender?)
  • Planned rehabilitation program (is this guy planning to go to some kind of rehab should he receive parole?)

Other factors that I thought would be significant, were in fact, not:

  • Severity of crime
  • Length of sentence served

But the more interesting finding was that, there is up to 65% chance for a prisoner to receive parole if his case is proceeded first, or right after morning snack/lunch break. Compared to cases proceeded just before said breaks, almost 0% chance of having the parole approved! This seemed like a case where the judge gets grumpy when they are hungry.

And then Danziger et al. (2013) suggest that after making repeated decision and deliberations, the judges may show a tendency to rule for the “status quo”, which in this case, is to deny parole. It’s like taking the easier choice that does not change the existing condition. But with each breaks taken, they kind of “reset” themselves and start to rule more favorably for a parole, and of course with each passing decision the tendency starts to lean towards the status quo once more.

Which is eerily similar to the predicament I am facing…

In keeping up with the theme of judges and the cases, my problem is quite similar. I’m the judge, and these applicants are the prisoners. Their application for funds are the parole request of the prisoners.

And of course, the status quo decision would be to not give them any money.

My workday starts at 9 AM, lunch break is at 12 PM. Of course, there are many snacking sessions in between. So much that I do not care to remember. By some train wreck logic, I have got too many instances of “resets” that all applicants I assessed should get better assessment results.

But the real question is, is it going to be the right decision?

What the study previously described managed to show is that we have a tendency to lean towards the status quo after we have, let’s say, exhausted our decision making energy. By no means we are saying getting judged or assessed after the assessor had a break will net you a more accurate result. It’s just that assessment made after a break is more likely to get out of the status quo regardless of if it is correct or not.

At least I know that if I’m not being super consistent in assessing things, there are studies that says that is what normal people do. As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as this cold, calculating, rational character, we are just some people susceptible to hunger.

The bottom line is, I may be more inclined to be kind if I’m full…unless if I get drowsy after a good meal. Will I be too drowsy and lazy to even considering getting out of the status quo? I might just reject someone’s application on the grounds of being too sleepy to think things through. After all, deciding to NOT give money is less likely to invite questions than deciding to give money. Then, you’ll have to explain why did I decide to give money to this particular SME. If I decide not to give money, less money spent by the institution. All cool.

I guess for now we’ll just wonder how do we arrive to some decisions.

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