Law and Order:  Sequential Contrast Effects in Judicial Decisions 

Abstract

A large psychological literature suggests that individuals rely on comparative perception when making sequential decisions or assessments. This study presents a theoretical framework featuring a dynamic programming model which offers predictions to differentiate perceptual errors from rational behavior, and provides empirical evidence for such “contrast effects” in sentencing decisions by lower court judges in PA courts. Having established that case order is conditionally random, there is evidence that judges are 8% more likely to be lenient in summary trials after exposure to a criminal infraction. However, the fact that these effects decay fully after a single case and persist despite judicial experience suggests the findings are not due to learning or quotas for high and low sentences. An original survey of real estate agents suggests that contrast effects may be strategically exploited in settings such as home purchases.