Finally, a Study That Explains Everything

Are people capable of evaluating their leaders fairly and objectively? Researchers say no.

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University of Southern California academics Dan Simon and Nicholas Scurich couldn't have known months ago that they would be unveiling the results of their "exploratory" study, "Lay Judgments of Judicial Decision-Making," smack dab in the middle of a furious debate over the nation's debt and deficit. But it turns out that their timing is impeccable. For here, in one place at one time, we are (again) reminded why government so often seems so broken to so many of us. 

It's human nature, folks. Our founding documents and governing institutions may aspire to Locke, but hundreds of years later we're still chock full of Hobbes. We respect officials when they do what we want them to do. We disrespect them when they don't. We are far less objective and justifiable than we think are with the rationales we endorse and employ. And everyone is looking out for themselves. No wonder there is so much cynicism toward law and politics. It's not just coming from the top down, as angry citizens like to claim -- it's coming from the bottom up, too.

Here's what the USC study sought to examine:

This exploratory study examined lay people's evaluations of judicial decision-making, specifically of the judicial decision-making process and the judiciary's legitimacy. Seven hundred participants were presented with three judicial decisions, which were portrayed as following on the heels of solid and appropriate legal procedure. Each decision was accompanied by one of four types of reasoning. Participants were asked to evaluate the acceptability of the decisions, focusing on the manner in which they were made and the legitimacy of the decision-maker, regardless of their outcomes.

And here's what the study concluded: 

First, we found that lay people's judgments of judicial-decision making are highly contingent on the outcome of the courts' decisions. Consistent with the theory of motivated reasoning (Kunda, 1990), judgments of the acceptability of the decision-making were overwhelmed by the congruence between the participants' preferred outcome and the outcomes of the judges' decisions (see also myside bias; Baron, 1995). In all three cases, the decisions were rated highly acceptable when the participants agreed with the judges' outcomes, but were deemed relatively unacceptable when they disagreed with them.

Lesson One: What have you done for me lately?

The second key finding was the interaction between the congruence of the decisions and the type of reasoning on the acceptability of the decision. Participants were indifferent towards the modes of reasoning when they agreed with the outcome of the judges' decision, but were differentially sensitive to the judicial reasoning when the judge's decision frustrated their preferred outcome. This finding is consistent with the fact that motivated reasoning influences not only the ultimate conclusion of a decision or inference, but also the procedures, methodologies or facts that underlie that judgment (e.g., Edwards & Smith, 1996; Taber & Lodge, 2006).

Agreed. And human nature doesn't take a detour on the road from law to politics, where there are even fewer "insulating" factors between the governed and the government. This "motivated reasoning" surely animates the current political debate -- over the debt, over the deficit, over health care reform, you name it -- in ways too numerous to list here. It helps explain why even the well-meaning and virtuous politicians among us are typically incapable of effectively governing in the interests of and for the betterment of all. So don't just blame the judges and the politicians for the current mess. Accept a measure of blame yourself. The study suggests you've probably earned it.

Image: Pinkfish_13/Flickr

Lesson Two: Spare me the details -- unless I disagree with you.

Third, when participants were sensitive to the modes of reasoning, the following pattern of acceptability judgments were observed (in decreasing order): decisions that were accompanied by multiple two-sided reasons were rated most acceptable; decisions accompanied by multiple one-sided reasons (monolithic reasoning) were rated similarly acceptable to decisions that had no reasons at all; and decisions accompanied by a single reason received the lowest ratings of acceptability.

Lesson Three (from the text of the study): "It appears that under some conditions, giving a reason can make the decision less acceptable than giving no reasons at all."  

Fourth, we found high intercorrelation among the eight acceptability attributes that were measured. These attributes also correlated strongly with the congruence between the participants' preferred outcomes and the judges' outcomes. In other words, participants who held a favorable view of the decision tended to give high acceptability ratings to each and every one of the eight attributes. This finding thus replicates the coherence effect (Read & Simon, in press; Simon, 2004; Simon & Holyoak, 2002).

Lesson Four: Post-hoc rationalization rules!

Simon and Scurich conclude that their "results call into question the judicial process' ability to insulate reactions to its performance from the outcomes it produces." Moreover, they suggest that "the observed effects of decision outcomes do not seem encouraging for the rule of law." They write:

Despite the great efforts to insulate judicial decision-making from the satisfaction or displeasure with the outcomes of the decisions it makes, motivated reasoning seems rather rampant in lay people's judgments of the endeavor.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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