As humans we pride ourselves as being rational and logical. Not so, really. Other factors come into play in how we make decisions. Leaders can use this knowledge to avoid decision-making traps.
A group of researchers decided that the best profession to study the impact of extraneous factors in decision making was judges. Judges pride themselves in being unaffected by factors outside of logic, evidence and precedent. If judges are influenced by extraneous factors there is a good chance that the rest of us are as well. The study was a real-life setting where the judges were making highly consequential decisions: parole applications.
The researchers hypothesised that as the judges work through a day’s sequence of parole applications the judges’ energy will be depleted and there will be a tendency for the judges to simplify decisions by accepting the status quo. The status quo or default decision in this setting is to deny the prisoner’s request. Business leaders should identify with the research proposition: that making repeated decisions depletes one’s mental resources which can, in turn, influence subsequent decisions.
The study involved 1,112 judicial rulings by eight judges over 50 days in a 10-month period. The prisoners were in gaol for a range of crimes including embezzlement, assault, theft, murder and rape. Every sitting-day a judge handled between 14-35 cases in succession and each case lasted around six minutes. The data included the time of the day on which the prisoner’s request was considered and its position in the sequence of decisions that day.
A key element in the study was that there were two breaks for food and refreshments. These breaks create a condition of mental replenishment. There was a late morning snack and lunch which served to break the day’s deliberations into three distinct decision sessions. Such a break may replenish by providing rest, improving mood or by increasing glucose levels in the body and therefore increasing energy.
A clear and almost linear picture emerges. The best chance of a favourable ruling is at the very beginning of the day and straight after a food break. Immediately at the start of a decision period a prisoner has a 65% chance of having their parole request approved. From that point on the chance of a favourable decision steadily declines to nearly zero just before the next break. After the break it jumps back to 65% and the pattern resumes (see the graphic). The prisoner who just by chance has their request come before the judge towards the end of a decision period has little to no chance of a favourable ruling.
In other words, the exception (to approve) was more likely when a judge was fresh and the default (to reject) was more likely when the judge was depleted.
Source: Danziger, S et al, “Extraneous factors in judicial decisions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 26, 2011, vol. 108, no. 17, 6889-6892. This study is referred to by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow where he explains the dominance of our emotional and intuitive processors of the brain (System 1) over the rational processors (System 2).
Implications for Leaders
A business leader’s day tends to be a stream of meetings with continuous decisions. While not absolutely the same as that of judges making sequential decisions, the findings provide helpful concepts for effective decision making and for avoiding traps from mental depletion.
1. Take breaks! They serve to replenish your mental facilities. And build breaks into business meetings and planning sessions. Don’t sacrifice breaks.
2. Make key decisions first-up in a day or after a break. If you’re making decisions well after your last break, you will tend to decide the default, or potentially negative, option.
3. On those days when you’ve had back-to-back meetings on a major project and you’re about to make key decisions, say to the team, “We’ve been at it all day. Let’s take a break and come back in 15 minutes and we’ll make our decisions.”
4. Build variety into your day so you avoid sequential activities (such as avoid a day of back-to-back performance reviews).
5. If you do have a day of sequential meetings, such as a series of interviews of job applicants, take plenty of breaks.
So, when your boss next reviews your pay, let’s hope for your sake they look at it just after a refreshment break. If your review is conducted well after your boss’s last break you’ll more likely end up with the default position of an average increase!