Some information about the strange forms of influencing judges in the finalization of acts of justice (1)

by Nicolae Catrina, yoga teacher

Some rigorous scientific research underline the fact that not only the corrupt judges (or, the so-called “puppet judges” – from which the case of Ionut Matei from the High Court of Cassation and Justice is, as we pointed out in the previous articles, as significant and probative as possible for us) are being influenced in the process of finalizing their sentences. Most often, even honorable judges who try to be objective and as impartial as possible, are also influenced by certain subjective factors.

Even if it might seem amazing at first sight, even honorable and experienced judges are often subjected, without knowing it, to certain psychic influences that cause them to give sentences which are obviously contradicting reality and are insubstantial. This aspect was emphasized by the results of many recent scientific studies that have also allowed the understanding of the objective causes of these distortions of the act of trial.

Before analyzing reality – which is totally unsuspected by the vast majority of people – before analyzing the different factors that are influencing the judges’ decisions (including those decisions that belong to honorable judges, who are objectively seeking to finalize their sentences), we must state that, according to the law, all judges are completely free when it comes to their evaluations. This is one of the facts explaining the possibility of existing significant differences (or, in some cases, blatant discrepancies) in the sentences. As it is already known, even the judges from the same judge panel are often evaluating the same information in a completely different manner, even if their professional education and expertise is similar. However, the analysis of the trials and the sentences given shows that even those judges who are not influenced (directly) by any political, economical etc. factor (that, in other words, are neither corrupt, nor blackmailed, but who are honest and impartial in their decisions), are often giving amazingly different sentences for quasi-equivalent cases! The reason for these strange facts is, upon a first glance, the fact that in their case there are many factors at play, especially psychic factors, which are susceptible to considerably influence the judges, due to a process of unsuspected, subconscious persuasion.

Idealy, the judge should base his sentence exclusively on real facts – respectively, solely on the offence and its particular circumstances. But during the process of giving the sentence, the judges are taking into account not only the blame of the defendant, but also the entire set of consequences that are going to follow its potential sanction. For example, if the defendant is a parent, a correct act of justice will try to evaluate as rigorously as possible what will happen with the family of that defendant, if he/she were to be convicted to imprisonment.

“The cognitive shortcuts are often unsuspectingly influencing our decisions

The main difficulty when rigorously and justly giving sentences is the fact that judges often are confronted with ambiguous information, sometimes even contradicting information. Just as every one of us, judges can also be confronted with a considerable amount of difficulty in dealing with such complex and ambiguous information.

In our day to day life, in order to reduce states of uncertainty that we might be confronted with as much as possible we often make use (in most of the cases, without even knowing it!) of the so-called “cognitive shortcuts”, such as, heuristic thinking. In other words, this means that instead of taking into consideration the immense multitude of factors which describe or determine the current situation (in regards to which we must make a decision), we resort (based on some general decisional rules) to a very small number of criteria. But this “convenient” simplification of the decision-making process can lead us to all sorts of errors.

For example, one of the main errors of heuristic thinking is the “anchor effect”, an effect which implies having the tendency of basing ourselves on something that has already been heard in a similar context – especially in the case of the estimates we base our decisions upon (particularly when it comes to numbers).

Numerous studies are already confirming this effect. In a study published in 1997, professor Thomas Mussweiler, from the University of Köln, and psychologist Fritz Strack, from the University of Würzburg (Germany) have asked a considerable group of subjects whether the Brandenburg gate in Berlin is higher or smaller than 25 meters. Then they asked another group of subjects whether or not the same edifice is higher or smaller than 150 meters. The results of the experiment have shown that the subjects not knowing the answer have come up with an estimate height based on the numerical “anchor” which was embedded into the question: those who were given the higher number (150 m) made higher estimates! Consequently, the same researchers continued the experiment with the height of the great cathedral of the city of Köln (Germany), and the results were identical: all the subjects who did not know the exact height of that cathedral have based their answers on the number given in the very question. But they came up with higher numbers when the number in the question was higher and smaller when the number in the question was smaller.

One of the more surprising results was the fact that the “anchor effect” is present even when the “anchors” seem to be impossible from a logical point of view! For example, when a group of subjects was asked whether or not Mahatma Gandhi had died before reaching nine years of age and another group was asked whether or not Mahatma Gandhi had died after reaching 140 years of age, the subjects who did not know Gandhi’s age of death have given an answer of approximately 50 years for the lower “anchor” and an age of approximately 67 years for the higher “anchor”.

The effect of so-called “anchoring” is manifested even when we are not consciously becoming aware of the anchor. In this respect, a study performed in 2005 in Germany consisted of a number of students estimating the outdoor temperature by first watching a computer monitor where they would see the question: “what is your estimate of the current outside temperature?”. Then, for a few milliseconds (which is much too fast for anyone to be able to notice it), either the number 5, or the number 20 would show up on the screen. Then they were asked to answer the question (which was to estimate the outdoor temperature). The results of the study have emphasized the fact that the subjects subliminally presented with the number 5 would give a smaller estimate (an average of 12.8ºC), whereas the subjects subliminally presented with the number 20 on the screen would give a higher estimate (an average of 14.9ºC). A control group was tested without the “anchor” (in other words, without the subliminal suggestion of a number on the screen) gave a medium estimate of 13.6ºC. A similar study which was conducted to estimate the price of a medium class automobile resulted in a similar result. When the sum of 10 000 euro was infiltrated into the question, the subjects would make an average estimate for the car being worth 17 000 euro; but when the “anchor” was 30 000 euro, their average estimate was 21 000 euro.

The often unsuspected influence of the “anchor effect” when giving court sentences

The same psychic traps are acting upon the thought of a judge. Many studies have already shown that, due to the “anchor effect”, judges are usually being influenced, in choosing their sentence or in setting the numbers for the damage etc. by the numbers forwarded (suggested) by the prosecuting attorney’s indictment! It has also been discovered that the personal traits of the defendant and the dispositions (and even predispositions) of the judge often have a significant influence on the trial and finalization of the sentence.

For example, it has been noted than when a judge is tired and angry, his verdicts are harsher. This was emphasized by a study from 2011 when a group of psychologists have examined more than a hundred punishment suspension requests. They were amazed to discover that both in the morning, and right after lunch break, the sentences were approximately 65% favorable to the defendants. In exchange, before the lunch break, almost all sentences were obviously disadvantageous to the defendants! Researchers considered this to be an effect of mental fatigue: when the vital resources of the judges were depleted, they would have the tendency to take the simpler and more “comfortable” decision, from a procedural perspective – which was the rejection of the suspension request.

The numerous “anchors”, that many of us are often subjected to, whether we are aware of it or not, act on our cognitive processes. In such situations we will be tempted to favor and even value those information which are confirming our hypotheses and estimates more, and to devaluate, to a certain extent, those who are opposite; in other words, the kind of information which brings us closer to the “anchor” cognitive perspective that has already been implemented into our minds will always be privileged. Psychologists call this attitude (which is instinctively biased): “the positive test of hypotheses”. For example, when we meet a person that has been described to us by a friend, prior to the meeting, as being introverted, we will consider this information to be a hypothesis, but we will also have the tendency – subconsciously – to interpret that person’s behavior according to the respective “hypothesis”, without ever wanting to find out if we are wrong or not.
Many studies have already confirmed the anchor effect to have a tremendous importance in courts, on the judges, especially in complex and ambiguous cases or, in other words, when judges are confronted with facts which are difficult to be objectively reasoned. For example, since 1996, American researchers Gretchen Chapman, from Rutgers University (USA) and Brian Borstein, from Baton Rouge State University, Louisiana (USA), have emphasized the fact that the numbers set by judges as recovery of damages or compensations in almost identical civil trials (fact, gravity etc.) were higher if the demands of the aggrieved party were higher.
Conclusions of the studies on the influence of the “anchor effect” on judicial sentences

“The anchor effect” which is manifested in courts of law was carefully studied within a more complex protocol, in 2001, in Germany. Both young, inexperienced judges and judges having over ten years of professional experience were chosen for the experiment. Researchers astonishingly determined that – on that occasion – the experience of the judges has no influence whatsoever in the considerable action of the “anchor effect”, the only difference being that the more experienced judges were much more confident on their decisions, compared to the young ones! The fact that the indictment (in which the “anchors” were also present) was read to them by an experienced or a novice prosecuting attorney was also of no importance.

In an even more surprising study, conducted in 2006, a random “anchor” was chosen: this simply consisted of a number which resulted from the throw of a pair of dice. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the researchers had previously known about this completely random method of number choice, they could not be connected in any way with the judges’ decision, they could still notice that the sanctions given by the judges were almost always higher when the numbers 5 or 6 appeared on the dice and lower when the numbers on the dice were lower.

In conclusion, synthesizing the results of the studies conducted up to the present day on the psychological influences on court sentences, (we underline, once more, that we are only referring to honorable judges, who are not being influenced by material or political leverages and who are not being blackmailed in any kind) the conclusions of these studies can be summarized as follows:

1. Any trial is influenced, most often, in a considerable amount, by certain psychic factors, amongst which the most important is the “anchor effect”.

Researchers Birte Englich and Thomas Mussweiler from the University of Köln have presented to a number of judges and attorneys at law from Germany a fictitious case. In short, the case was as follows: two young people meet at a party: then, after they flirt for a while, the man asks the woman if she wants him to drive her home in his car. The woman says yes, but instead of driving her home, she is taken somewhere, in a forest, where, due to her saying no to the man’s approach, he ends up raping her.

The magistrates taking part in this study were given all the information that they usually receive during a trial: a brief description of the case and the persons involved, the psychological expertise reports, the medical report, the victim’s statements, the defendant’s statements and the witnesses’ statements. Notwithstanding, even though all these law specialists were confronted with the exact same information, their recommendations on the convictions were anywhere between seven years of adjourned imprisonment and three years in prison!

The “mystery” of this great discrepancy between their decisions was caused by the very protocol of the study, which implies the fact that some of them (some of the magistrates) were supposed to imagine being questioned by a journalist if the punishment they would give would be higher than a year, and others should imagine being asked if the punishment they would give would be lower than three years in prison. Thus, it was proven that the lower “anchor” would considerably shrink the average sentence suggested by the judges (to approximately two years and one month) while the higher “anchor” would raise it (on average) to approximately two years and nine months.

In a similar study, the researchers imagined the case of a thief who was caught in flagrante delicto (in other words, he was caught red-handed) many times in a row. The prosecution’s indictment would ask for a nine month adjourned imprisonment sentence. The judges taking part in this experiment could dictate the anchor to themselves this time, with the help of a roll of a dice. But the dice were previously rigged so that, no matter how they would be thrown, they would always show either 1 or 2, either 3 or 6. In both cases, the sentences given by the magistrates would by different by approximately 2.5 months.

Due to the fact that these psychic influences turned out to be systematical, we can draw the conclusion that the decisions of judges can be almost entirely oriented (by someone who is familiar with all these subtle aspects) in a certain direction!

We recommend you also read the second part of the article

July 4, 2014

Also available in: Română

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