The Neuroscience of Parole Board Hearings and Better Decision-making

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending Jenni Jepsen’s (@jenniindk) seminar on “The neuroscience of Agile leadership.” Jenni introduced the subject by giving us an overview of how the brain works, partly inspired by the book Your Brain at Work by David Rock, and discussed how it relates to core Agile principles and practices.

One of my many takeaways was how quickly the brain gets tired and drives us to rely more on old and proven patterns and less open to new or seemingly more risky options. The reason for this is that complex tasks such as understanding the details of a new situation, planning, decision-making, etc. are all made using our prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex is also the newest part of our brain and it takes a lot of mental energy to concentrate on i.e. a difficult decision. This leads to the prefrontal cortex quickly tiring and we start to simplify decisions. We become more and more likely to make a decision that leads to a default, status quo outcome than one that leads to a change.

This insight made me remember a study I read about parole board hearings in Israel prisons lead by Shai Danziger from Ben Gurion University of the Negev over a ten-month period. Danziger examined 1,112 parole board hearings and found that the prime factor in deciding the prisoners’ fates was the time of day of the hearing.  Danziger found that odds of being granted parole were approximately 65% if the prisoner’s case was the first to be presented to the judges in the morning, and almost none, if the prisoner was unluckily enough to be the last prisoner before lunch. Danziger also found that the odds jumped back to about 65% for the first prisoner just after a morning snack break and just after lunch. In both cases, the odds quickly dropped off again within a few hours. The graph on the right shows the odds of being granted parole during the day. Danziger studied the cases in detail and was able to exclude all but one explaining for the striking patterns of his findings: the more decisions a judge has to make without a break, the more likely he is to make the default (or safest, if you will) decision.

Danziger’s findings have also been proven in a number of less dramatic studies. When we are faced with a difficult decision we draw on the limited resources of our prefrontal cortex. As we use these resources (primarily glucose and oxygen), the next decision becomes harder. To re-energize the prefrontal cortex, we need a break to get oxygen to the brain and we need to refill our glucose depots. This explains why the judges were more willing to grant prisoners parole in the morning and after the snack and lunch breaks.

As interesting as this insight about how the brain works are, I doubt it’s very useful to a prisoner up for a parole hearing unless they can pick the time of day their case is being tried. It is however very useful when we apply it to work that requires even rudimentary cognitive skills and where we have a higher degree of influence on when we do it. If you know you have to do both trivial and more complex work during the day, you can enhance your productivity and make better decisions by prioritizing when to do what. Actually, the act of prioritization itself is a pretty complex task that draws heavily on the energy levels of your prefrontal cortex. You might, therefore, consider spending some time planning your day in the morning when your energy levels are high and then have a break and refill your glucose levels before starting the next task. Try to schedule the more complex work following a break and leave some of the more trivial stuff for later in the day when your prefrontal cortex is more tired, and don’t be afraid of taking a break when you feel you need it.

Speaking of breaks, I can feel my prefrontal cortex is getting tired from writing and I will, therefore, leave you with an encouragement to read Jenni’s article “The Neuroscience of Agile Leadership” published by InfoQ, if you want to know more about the subject.

As always please feel free to leave a comment.


Picture credit:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *