Psychology: A question of judgment

A NEVER-ENDING flow of information is the lot of most professionals. Whether it comes in the form of lawyers’ cases, doctors’ patients or even journalists’ stories, this information naturally gets broken up into pieces that can be tackled one at a time during the course of a given day. In theory, a decision made when handling one of these pieces should not have much, if any, impact on similar but unrelated subsequent decisions. Yet Uri Simonsohn of the University of Pennsylvania and Francesca Gino at Harvard report in Psychological Science that this is not how things work out in practice.

Dr Simonsohn and Dr Gino knew from studies done in other laboratories that people are, on the whole, poor at considering background information when making individual decisions. At first glance this might seem like a strength that grants the ability to make judgments which are unbiased by external factors. But in a world of quotas and limits—in other words, the world in which most professional people operate—the two researchers suspected that it was actually a weakness. They speculated that an inability to consider the big picture was leading decision-makers to be biased by the daily samples of information they were working with. For example, they theorised that a judge fearful of appearing too soft on crime might be more likely to send someone to prison if he had already sentenced five or six other defendants only to probation on that day.

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