April 26, 2019

Random justice

The AEA interviews Anthony Heyes about how the temperature outside affects judicial decisions and the larger costs of climate change.

Photo illustration by Chris Fleisher

“The most sacred of the duties of a government is to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.”

Thomas Jefferson said that, reflecting an ideal that America’s founders tried to enshrine into the nation’s legal system.

In reality, US courts are far from perfect. Judges are human, after all, and decisions handed down from the bench can be influenced by any number of irrelevant factors, even the weather.

In the April issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, Anthony Heyes and Soodeh Saberian looked at how the temperature outside affected the ways US immigration judges decided cases. They found that judges were much less likely to grant favorable decisions on days that were hotter.

The paper underscores how even minor and irrelevant factors can have profound influences on human choices. The implications extend beyond the courts to pretty much any situation where highly skilled people are making important decisions.

The AEA spoke with Heyes about his research and what he believes to be its most crucial lessons when we’re wrestling with how to adapt to a changing climate. The highlights of that conversation, edited for length and clarity, are below and a longer audio version of the interview can be heard by clicking on the media player below.


AEA: Why did you want to look at how outdoor temperature affects immigration judges?

Anthony Heyes: Our interest is not about judicial decision making in itself. Really we're interested in the question of how climate and external temperature affect how well highly skilled employees are doing their job in indoor environments. We happen to be studying judges in this project, but we're hoping that there's this external validity to say, if the performance of a judge is compromised, then equally perhaps all of those other high-skilled people working every day in millions of offices around the world [may be compromised].

AEA: Let's talk about the environment in which these judges were working. Are these climate controlled environments?

Heyes: One of the really appealing characteristics of using this setting for this study was that we know that the environment in which the judge is sitting when he or she makes their decisions is pretty much perfectly climate controlled. The US federal government . . . when they procure space for use, they have different levels that they require. . . . For a space to be used as a courtroom in the US, it needs to have climate control that is essentially perfect. We know that the most obvious way of protecting against extreme temperatures outside is air conditioning or climate control, and we know that adjustment is more or less fully done for these particular workers.

AEA: Could you describe the geographic range of where these judges are located?

Heyes: They are in 43 different courthouses spread across the US in about 28 different states. . . . The geographical spread is very wide.

AEA: What were your results?

Heyes: Controlling for a rather large set of characteristics, we find a causal link from outdoor temperature, in particular hot outdoor temperatures to the likelihood that an applicant inside an immigration court gets a favorable decision. Effectively, once temperatures are up around 65 degrees, once it gets hotter than that outside, your chances as an applicant of having your request of being allowed to stay in the US granted goes down quite substantially as outdoor temperature gets hotter.

AEA: And what's the magnitude? Favorable decisions go down by how much?

Heyes: Roughly a 10 degree Fahrenheit change in temperature above that comfortable point of mid-60s reduces by around 8 percent your chance of a favorable decision.

AEA: How do you think about this research in the context of climate change?

Heyes: Climate is changing. That's a given, and that will mean that we're going to have a different pattern of hot days and cold days. So, thinking about how that will affect human function, human performance, how different parts of the economy are going to be affected by that is very important.

We're seeing a decrement to the performance of judges. Now imagine if that spilled over and we could find the same decrement if we were thinking about accountants and computer programmers and surgeons and other people doing important work. That would imply a very important impact of outdoor temperature.

AEA: Do you have any thoughts on potential ways to address this?

Heyes: That's a really important question. A lot of people are thinking about how we make our economies and our organizations more climate resilient. I think one of the really big takeaways from this paper is that having more air conditioning is not going to do it, because here we have full state-of-the-art climate control and we still find quite a substantial effect.

In terms of how you try to desensitize work from the climate, there are various people thinking about this. You could think about trying to take discretion away from judges, but in a sense, that kind of trivializes it. Presumably judges are doing something which is socially useful, evaluating complex files in ways that a robot couldn't do. I don't think we're going to get to a stage where you can just replace a judge with a robot.

But secondly, as I've said, we're interested really in high-skilled people doing high-value, high-stakes work indoors; not just judges but all those others. . . . We're not just trying to speak about judges. We're using judges as a parable for many other cognitively challenging types of jobs. And climate control, which is sort of one of the main technological fixes to the climate change that's happening, is not going to protect us.

"Temperature and Decisions: Evidence from 207,000 Court Cases" appears in the April issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. The song "Starday" used in the audio interview is by Podington Bear.