Opening Statements

Judges: They're Just Like Us!

Chris Guthrie now has concrete evidence that judges are just like the rest of us. Turns out, they make decisions—and mistakes—like everyone else.

In a study evaluating how trial judges make decisions, Guthrie concluded that they tend to make spontaneous, effortless and fast decisions instead of concentrating and deliberating to reach conclusions. Putting it gently, they’re predominantly intuitive, rather than cognitive, decision-makers.

Guthrie reached that conclusion, in part, by asking 295 Florida trial judges who’d gathered at a conference to take the three-question cognitive reflection test created by business professor Shane Frederick of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The CRT can be tricky because each question has a correct answer that’s easy to see after you’ve deliberated, but each also has an intuitive—but incorrect—answer that almost immediately comes to mind. How you answer sheds light on whether you’re an intuitive or deliberative thinker.

The bad news? Frankly, the judges bombed the test. Only 15 percent got all three answers correct, and 31 percent got all three answers wrong. The good news, though, is that plenty of other smart people performed just as poorly. The judges’ scores ranked them below students at Harvard who took the test, but ahead of students at the Univer­sity of Michigan.

“There’s no surprise,” says Guthrie, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School in Nash­ville, Tenn. He teamed up with professor Jeffrey J. Rachlinski of Cornell Law School and U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Wistrich of Los Angeles on the study, which became “Blinking on the Bench: How Judges Decide Cases.” The article was published in November in the Cornell Law Review, and by February it had become the talk of the blogosphere.

“Judges are human beings, and they tend to reason and make judgments the way the rest of us do,” Guthrie says.

To help judges make better decisions, Guthrie and his colleagues offer several recommendations, ranging from adding more judgeships to requiring judges to write more opinions.

Even if judges don’t get any relief, Guthrie recommends cutting them slack. “We’re very much of the view that judges are doing the best they can,” he says, “but they bump up with the same limitations the rest of us bump up against in life.”

Take the cognitive reflection test”Check Your Reflection.”

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