Confronting Cognitive 'Anchoring Effect' and 'Blind Spot' Biases in Federal Sentencing: A Modest Solution for Reforming a Fundamental Flaw
47 Pages Posted: 1 Oct 2014
Date Written: July 5, 2014
Cognitive "anchoring effect" bias, especially related to numbers, like sentencing guidelines ranges, is widely recognized in cognitive psychology as an extremely robust and powerful heuristic. It is a cognitive shortcut that has a strong tendency to undermine judgments by "anchoring" a judgment to an earlier disclosed number, the anchor. Numerous studies prove anchoring bias produces systematic errors in judgment in wide-ranging circumstances, including judgments by experts — doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, psychologists, and auditors — as well as a variety of decisions by foreign and American federal and state judges. The anchoring effect occurs even when the anchor is incomplete, inaccurate, irrelevant, implausible, or even random. Roughly corresponding in time with the developing understanding of the anchoring effect, federal sentencing has undergone a revolution from judges having virtually unlimited discretion, to virtually no discretion, and back to considerable discretion, as the Federal Sentencing Guidelines went from mandatory to advisory in a single monumental U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005). Surprisingly, since judges were granted much greater discretion in Booker, the length and severity of federal sentences, for the most part, has not changed. This remains true despite long-standing, persistent, and widespread dissatisfaction among federal district court judges with the Guidelines and the length of sentences. This Article argues that this is because judges’ sentences are subconsciously anchored by the calculated Guidelines range. This Article offers a simple, modest, and practical solution that requires no change in existing law by the Supreme Court or Congress. It simply requires rearranging the numerical anchoring information in the presentence report and adding additional relevant numerical information to counteract the anchoring effect of the Guidelines. If federal district court judges are educated about the effect of cognitive anchoring and their own bias-based blind spots to it — their improved awareness can only enhance the fairness of sentencing.
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