Gambler's fallacy affects immigration judges, study says

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Immigration judges succumb to gambler’s fallacy in their decision-making, a study has found.

Gambler’s fallacy is the belief that an outcome will change after a string of the same outcomes. As applied to coin flips, the gambler’s fallacy is that the odds of a flip coming up heads will change after three heads in a row. In truth, there is still a 50/50 chance.

The study (PDF) found that moderate immigration judges who don’t show a strong pattern of approving or denying requests are about 1 percentage point less likely to grant asylum after approving the previous asylum request, Capital Ideas magazine reports. After a streak of two asylum grants, moderate immigration judges are 5.5 percentage points less likely to grant asylum than they would after a streak of two denials.

Asylum judges with more experience were less swayed by past decisions, likely because they have more confidence in their ability to decide cases, according to a Washington Post report on the study.

The findings by University of Chicago finance professor Kelly Shue and her colleagues are based on a review of more than 150,000 asylum rulings by 357 immigration judges from 1985 to 2013, according to Capital Ideas and NPR.

Shue spoke with the Washington Post about her findings, which also found that gambler’s fallacy applies to loan officers and Major League Baseball umpires. “There’s a mistaken belief that streaks of good cases or streaks of bad cases are unlikely to happen, even though they actually do occur by chance,” she said. “So when you see a good case, you believe, incorrectly, that the next case is less likely to be a good case.”

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