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Judging by Heuristic: Cognitive Illusions in Judicial Decision Making

NCJ Number
Judicature Volume: 86 Issue: 1 Dated: July-August 2002 Pages: 44-50
Chris Guthrie; Jeffrey J. Rachlinski; Andrew J. Wistrich
Date Published
July 2002
7 pages
This article discusses the effects of cognitive illusions on judicial decision making.
The legitimacy of the judiciary depends on the quality of the judgments that judges make. The public expects judges to avoid making systematic errors that favor certain parties or writing opinions that embed these mistakes into the law. Psychological research suggests that this may be unrealistic. Research indicates that people rely on mental shortcuts or “heuristics” to make complex decisions. These heuristics can create cognitive illusions of judgment. Certain fact patterns can fool people’s judgment, leading them to believe things that are not really true. Research indicates that cognitive illusions affect the way juries decide cases. It seems reasonable to speculate that judges, who are intelligent, experienced, well-trained, and highly motivated decision makers, might be immune to such illusions. Research on judgment and choice suggests that cognitive illusions plague many professionals. An empirical study was conducted to determine whether five common cognitive illusions--anchoring, framing, hindsight bias, inverse fallacy, and egocentric bias--would influence the decision making of a sample of 167 Federal magistrate judges. A brief questionnaire was administered to these judges during an educational conference. Results show that, although these judges were less susceptible to framing effects and the inverse fallacy than other decisionmakers faced with similar situations, they proved to be just as susceptible as other experts and laypersons to the influence of anchoring effects, the hindsight bias, and the egocentric bias. Overall, results indicate that judges use heuristics that can produce systematic errors in judgment. Some ways that judges can minimize the effects of cognitive illusions are considering multiple perspectives and seeking out decision making methods or standards that are less likely to be influenced by misleading heuristics. 3 tables, 22 footnotes