Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 37, Number 1

Associate Dean Chris Guthrie: Snap Judgments

Associate Dean Chris Guthrie

Associate Dean Chris Guthrie's conclusion that judges make decisions quickly and intuitively - just like most of the rest of us - created a ripple in the legal blogosphere last winter.

To evaluate how trial judges make decisions, Dean Guthrie and colleagues Jeffrey Rachlinski of Cornell Law School and U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Wistrich of Los Angeles asked Florida trial judges who had gathered at a conference to take a Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) created by MIT business professor Shane Frederick. The deceptively easy CRT has only three questions, each of which has an intuitive, but incorrect answer that almost immediately comes to mind, as well as a correct answer that becomes evident only after deliberation. How test subjects answer the questions sheds some light on whether their approach was deliberative or intuitive.

Only 15 percent of the judges who took the CRT got all three questions right, and 31 percent got all three answers wrong, leading Guthrie and his colleagues to conclude that judges - like most other people - are predominantly intuitive rather than deliberative decision-makers. The judges' scores ranked them below a group of Harvard students who took the test, but ahead of students at the University of Michigan. Guthrie and his coauthors presented their findings in a November 2007 Cornell Law Review article, "Blinking on the Bench: How Judges Decide Cases."

"We believe that judges try to get it right, but they face the same impediments the rest of us face when we make judgments and decisions - limited time, attention and cognitive capacity," says Guthrie, an expert in negotiation and dispute resolution. Guthrie has served as the law school's associate aean for academic affairs since 2004.

Condensed from "Judges: They're Just Like Us," by G. M. Filisko, ABA Journal, June 2008