Ancient Greeks, the masters of rhetoric, claimed that there is a strategically perfect timing for everything. To show that they were taking this idea seriously, they even designated a separate god – Kairos – who represented the perfect moment. When Kairos was arriving, you could grasp him by the hair hanging over his face. Once he passed by, you could not grasp him because the back of his head was bald. Greeks wanted show in this way that the perfect moment is always fleeting. The contemporary research shows more and more that the Greeks might have been on to something, and unfortunately our decisions can be heavily swayed by fatigue and other similar factors.

Researchers from Ben-Gurion University (Israel) analyzed more than 1,100 decisions over the course of a year. For example, consider three Israeli prisoners appearing before a parole board consisting a judge, a criminologist, and a social worker. All three prisoners had completed at least two-thirds of their sentences, but only one of them received the parole.

  • Case 1 (heard at 8:50 a.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.
  • Case 2 (heard at 3:10 p.m.): A Jewish Israeli serving a 16-month sentence for assault.
  • Case 3 (heard at 4:25 p.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.

The researchers found a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t about prisoners’ crimes, sentences, or ethnic backgrounds. It was all about timing: about 70 percent of prisoners appearing early in the morning received parole and only 10 percent of those who appeared late in the day. So you can guess that of the three cases mentioned above, only Number 1  prisoner received the parole. It’s all about the decision-fatigue. As The New York Times reported:

The judges’ erratic judgment was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. Bush once put it, “the decider.” The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down.

In essence, the experiment suggests that judges’ mental energy is an exhaustible resource. The research over the last two decades has likewise suggested that our willpower weakens with use, but this is the first study to show that judges are likewise affected by the decision-fatigue.

An Israeli prisoner might not be able to reschedule his late afternoon appointment with the parole board, but most of us can strategically adapt if we accept that even seemingly trivial circumstances like the time of the day can be critical.


The New York Times, August 17, 2011