Context Effects in Judicial Decision Making

31 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2009 Last revised: 25 Aug 2009

See all articles by Jeffrey J. Rachlinski

Jeffrey J. Rachlinski

Cornell Law School

Chris Guthrie

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Andrew J. Wistrich

California Central District Court

Date Written: August 3, 2009


In this paper, we present five sets of studies of how lawyers can induce judges to make erroneous judgments and how judges seem to respond. In the first, we demonstrate that a simple contrast effect can influence judges by showing that adding a worthless expert witness who lacks credibility can boost one's case. In the second, we show that judges' assessments of the probative value of forensic evidence depends upon how the information is presented. But at the same time, we show that judges resist this misleading attempt at misdirection. Similarly, in the third set of studies, we show that judges are vulnerable to the misleading effects of the conjunctive logic, but that they seem also able to resist this effect in settings that are more relevant to the kinds of judgments they make. In the fourth set of studies, we identify how it is that judges avoid the influence of the hindsight bias on judgments of probable cause by altering the target of the judgment that they make. (In this study, the natural setting, rather than tricky lawyering, provides the potential source of misdirection, but judges seem to navigate it well.) In the final set of studies we show how judges attempt to ignore inadmissible evidence in ways that make them vulnerable to further undesirable extra-legal influences. Taken together, these studies show that misdirection is a two-way streets in the courtroom. Laywers can try to misdirected judges to induce erroneous judgments, but judges might well respond by changing their own focus to more stable targets that make them less vulnerable to untoward influences. These efforts, however, can also backfire, as judges can make themselves more vulnerable to error.

Suggested Citation

Rachlinski, Jeffrey John and Guthrie, Chris and Wistrich, Andrew J., Context Effects in Judicial Decision Making (August 3, 2009). CELS 2009 4th Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies Paper, Available at SSRN: or

Jeffrey John Rachlinski (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States
607-255-5878 (Phone)
607-255-7193 (Fax)

Chris Guthrie

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States
615-322-6823 (Phone)
615-322-6631 (Fax)

Andrew J. Wistrich

California Central District Court ( email )

Los Angeles, CA 90012
United States

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