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Why two men committing the same crime get different chances at a parole (nytimes.com)
144 points by sidwyn on Sept 18, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 43 comments



A couple things leaped out at me reading this.

What about insulin resistance? Do people with high insulin resistance have less of an effect from sugary snacks?

On the flip side, how about exercise? Do people with a lot of sugar stored in muscles and a more optimum processing of sugar do better on these things?

To put this more generally, the author seemed to be reporting from a deterministic viewpoint, i.e., whatever you eat and these random life scheduling events are causing decision fatigue. Is there nothing an individual can do (aside from the briefly-described coping mechanisms) My gut feeling tells me this is not as black-and-white as it is made out to be. Hopefully there will be a lot of future research in this area. It's a fascinating topic.


What about insulin resistance? Do people with high insulin resistance have less of an effect from sugary snacks?

Nope. The dopamine response from eating sugar is completely independent of the insulin response. Unfortunately people with type 1 diabetes still get a dopamine response from eating candy and don't get one from injecting insulin -- life would be so much better if those were reversed!


For what it's worth, athletes on ketogenic diets(very low carbs) eventually adapt and return to their previous performance.


The article was written by one of the coauthors of Willpower (http://www.amazon.com/Willpower-Rediscovering-Greatest-Human...). I read this book last week and it was terrific. A great blend of fascinating studies and practical advice. Also, while many pop psych books rehash the same studies over and over, Willpower featured many results that I had not encountered before, like these findings about parole hearings. Highly recommended book.


Couldn't agree more, a great book. As far as I understood it was written by a journalist, but a journalist closely working with scientists. He tells a great story and it definitely is nothing like Gladwell speculations.


This is a much more interesting article than the title suggests. I'd rather see the title reference decision fatigue.


I found the title interesting to look into it, and I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the article deals with something deeper than I expected.

I agree though if there are those who don't find the judge's behavior strange nay not be attracted by the title and will miss out on a great story.


Yep, decision fatigue also helps explain late night infomercials.


Interesting that they mention the Dell website for decision making. 4 times this year I've decided to purchase a new computer and spent hours trying to figure out what to buy from the Dell website. I have yet to upgrade.


Dell likes to offer a TON of options on everything. You can get the exact computer you want (within specs), but at the cost of having to accumulate the knowledge to make those decisions.

This isn't hard if you're a hardware geek, but ask say a software geek a nontechnical person to do it and they'll frequently end up in a world of confusion.

Compare to say Apple's site which in many cases has about 2 options per item (as opposed to Dell's 10+), which often causes hardware geeks frustration.

See also the paradox of choice.


When it was Pentium 2,3, or 4 it made perfect sense. Higher number = better. When it's pentium 2318497X vs AMD 328712Y vs AMD 1238NP32 it's just a garble of random digits. Combine that with graphics cards, motherboard types, connections and all the upsell opportunities/marketing gimmicks Dell attempts and it's a confusing mess of choices. I just want a fast PC for upto £1,000.

edit - I should add this is all after I've been in tech for close to 15 years now. I wonder what it is like to be a non-tech buying a computer.


I think they should fire the person who convinced them that the best first question a potential customer should have answered should be "home office? personal? corporate?"

The fact that they don't allow you to select from their entire range turned me off from ever considering them years ago.


That's one reason that I lie in wait for Refurb deals from buy.com or woot. Every so often, a $300 Quad core comes along : The lack of decision points is a huge win.

Upgrade something when you find the weaknesses. Or ditch it (pass it to a deserving relative) and move on.


An easy way around this: Buy mac hardware, install windows.


That's actually what I decided to do in the end, until I looked at the Apple site and figured a mac just isn't powerful enough for my needs...plus the release schedules are a mess right now...mid cycle everything.


One of the biases at work is described here: http://lesswrong.com/lw/58y/the_bias_you_didnt_expect/

Simply put, the judge is being harsher as the time since his last meal grows longer.


> His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. ...they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices.

This rung a bell for me because I've noticed it's often easier to enforce a rule on myself if it's A) an actual rule and B) pre-decided (by me). It's not that I'm handing over the decision-making to anyone else. It's that I've set myself a rule (like, "no Facebook at work", a personal choice, not imposed by my job), so I'm not deciding right now "do I have time to check FB? Will it suck me in too far?" and so on. Looking back over my various self-improvement "diets" (usually more technological than food-related) I can see that the most successful ones were those for which I could set a hard-and-fast rule and for which I could convince myself that "the rule is set, can't break it now".

Which is, of course, still a mental discipline, and a nontrivial one. But it's easier than the ones that involve more deciding on the spot, and a lot easier than the ones where I think, "I will try to mostly avoid...", which usually don't last very long. I'd never really thought of that in terms of number of decisions before, or decision fatigue, but it's an excellent explanation for a phenomenon I was already pretty familiar with.


The issue of parole isn't particular interesting. But decision fatigue is intriguing. I think a more interesting pitch for this would be just 'Decision fatigue'.


Why is the issue of parole not particularly interesting to you?


Buying computers is much more interesting than a man's freedom!


That was really interesting and the title should've been different. I assumed it was the same story from a few months ago about the statistical likelihood of parole on the time of day but it's far more than that.

Three things sprung to mind:

The first is that I've often said I like the food we get at Google because food is, for me, a bunch of decisions I just don't care about. Where to go? What to order from the menu? How much to tip (if appropriate)?

Providing your employees with food seems to directly address decision fatigue.

Google rose to a prominence in an era of portal pages. Yahoo in particular had a home page without hundreds of links. Google presented you with a logo, a text box, two buttons and <50 words of text. What to do on such a page involves less decision making.

In the 90s there were lots of experiments with directories. Yahoo had one. Think about this: typing in a search involves one decision. Finding something in a directory involves one decision at each step.

The second thing that occurred to me was Apple. Apple is famous for making decisions for its customers. Many people rail against this lack of control. I personally appreciate it.

Consider: with Windows you need to make lots of decisions like whether or not you need to have security software, what antivirus solution to get, what program to use to play music, etc. With a Mac (and especially an iDevice) most of those choices are made for you.

Similarly the Apple Store is famous for its low number of choices (compare buying a Mac to buying any PC online).

Could it be that this making decisions for customers is part of the intense loyalty many have for Apple products?

The third was the sociological impacts of decision fatigue. Organized religion and government tell people what to do. They give people a set of morals and laws (respectively) to follow rather than forcing people to think through the consequences. Decision fatigue is a new angle to this (at least for me).

Lastly the impacts of poverty were a particularly refreshing angle. As a software engineer I don't really need to make day-to-day tradeoffs in groceries, what I can eat and the like so I just don't suffer from that kind of fatigue.

EDIT: two more interesting aspects to this occurred to me.

The education system in the last few decades has emphasized creativity and expression. This is part of the reason why many countries have abandoned school uniforms. While many laud the benefits of self-expression from, say, high school students being able to wear what they want, what about the consequences in terms of decision fatigue?

High school is stressful for most people. Add to that the stress of deciding what to wear, how to present oneself and so on and you can argue it's a contributing factor to poor decision-making by teens, no?

The second is on leadership. Leaders make decisions, obviating the need for followers to weigh up choices. Could this be part of why so many of us are so eager to follow? I remember a scene from an early Mad Men episode where Don was saying that what most people crave is to be told that whatever they're doing is OK. We crave that affirmation. I wonder at the decision fatigue implications of this.

Similarly, what about relationships? Couples often get to the point of what "we" decided to do. Could part of the advantage of a relationship be that you greatly reduce the number of decisions that you personally need to make?


One of the most thought-provoking posts on HN :)


Google rose to a prominence in an era of portal pages. Yahoo in particular had a home page without hundreds of links. Google presented you with a logo, a text box, two buttons and <50 words of text. What to do on such a page involves less decision making. In the 90s there were lots of experiments with directories. Yahoo had one. Think about this: typing in a search involves one decision. Finding something in a directory involves one decision at each step.

Yep. Also consider the superior experience of reading a news article (like this one) in single-page mode instead of page by page. Clicking on a link feels a lot more like "a decision" than turning the page of a book, which flows naturally. The single-page option just "feels" a lot better.

One issue that comes up in web design is that reading a link (even a spurious one) taxes the reader's mind substantially more than reading regular text. If I recall correctly, the cognitive load of a link is about five times that of a regular word.

People tend to "block out" the clutter, but there's a subconscious mental energy expenditure in the "blocking out" process. People don't notice the effect day-to-day, but over time it leads to people preferring Google over Yahoo.

Apple is famous for making decisions for its customers. Many people rail against this lack of control. I personally appreciate it.

I agree. Windows, as far as I can see it, is the worst of both worlds. You have to do a lot of work (make a lot of decisions) to get a half-decent experience but if you want to control it at a low level, the way you can with Linux, you can't. Apple provides you with a B+/A- default experience, and Jobs's attitude is that if you want something "better", you should use something else. Which is the right approach because one person's "A+" experience is another's confusing horror.

The quickest way to enervate someone, in this regard, is to present that person with lots of decisions to make, and then ensure that the outcomes of those decisions are still somewhat unsatisfactory. That's the Windows experience, in a nutshell.

The second is on leadership. Leaders make decisions, obviating the need for followers to weigh up choices. Could this be part of why so many of us are so eager to follow? I remember a scene from an early Mad Men episode where Don was saying that what most people crave is to be told that whatever they're doing is OK.

Don Draper: banned on Google+. :)

I remember that scene (in Mad Men) quite well and I think it's insightful. It reminds me of On Killing, an excellent book on the psychological effects of war. One proposed candidate for the increasing prevalence of PTSD is the way soldiers are treated when they return from war. War has always been terrible, but the change is in how soldiers are seen on return. In 1945, they were received as heroes for defeating the Nazis, which helped them feel "OK" about what they'd had to do. After Vietnam, they were called "baby killers" and generally treated quite poorly. For that reason, a lot of the Vietnam vets never recovered.


> I agree. Windows, as far as I can see it, is the worst of both worlds. You have to do a lot of work (make a lot of decisions) to get a half-decent experience but if you want to control it at a low level, the way you can with Linux, you can't.

I have a slightly different take on this. While I agree that Windows is an example of how trying to be all things to all men leads to a confusing mess, at least in Windows 7 it's still a fairly decent default experience. It probably does punish the true tinkerer for all its complex layers of the registry, local and group policies, magic folders (eg startup), etc.

But Linux on the desktop just goes to prove time and again just how bad a user experience it is to give true "freedom". I don't want to figure out what the best way of playing video or audio files is and choosing between N (where N is typically a fairly large number) options.

This is something that Canonical (for one) is trying to address but at this stage it almost requires a complete rethink of the Linux desktop (which may be what Wayland and others hope to achieve).

> I remember that scene (in Mad Men) quite well and I think it's insightful. It reminds me of On Killing, an excellent book on the psychological effects of war.

I could probably rhapsodize about the insights of Mad Men all day.

That's certainly an interesting take on war. I think it's more than that though. In modern warfare we (as a society) have become incredibly good at training soldiers to do their job reflexively. In a combat situation the training kicks in and the modern soldier will, generally speaking, shoot an enemy (as one example) almost completely instinctively.

It's only after that happens when the soldier has time to process what they've done that they run into trouble. I saw a documentary on this and it was talking about how there's a real disconnect between the how of a soldier's actions and the why with the increasingly effective training.


> But Linux on the desktop just goes to prove time and again just how bad a user experience it is to give true "freedom". I don't want to figure out what the best way of playing video or audio files is and choosing between N (where N is typically a fairly large number) options.

Actually, the flip side of this is one of my favorite things about Linux on the desktop. If I'm looking for some new software to do some new-to-me task X, as long as they're properly packaged in the repositories, it's usually very low-cost to just give them a quick 2-minute test. Partly because no one is monetarily gaining from tricking me, I don't even have to worry about being tricked! On Windows, I have to do quite a lot of digging before I'm even willing to install a free trial, because the culture of producing free trials that are really malware is so prevalant.

I love the Linux desktop because it makes the necessary choices (e.g. which low-res pixel-art image-editing software should I use?) so much less draining.


I could probably rhapsodize about the insights of Mad Men all day.

Something I find interesting is that Mad Men and Breaking Bad are superficially different shows, but actually extremely similar. Ignore the radically different backdrops and they're both about out-of-control egos and "men at work" drama. The difference is that one setting involves alcoholism and advertising and people who fall out just get fired, while the other involves methamphetamine and murder and failing (for Walter) means death. Mad Men is erotic, Breaking Bad is thanatoptic; but the shows are two different takes on the same society.

I don't know if this correspondence is intentional on the part of AMC's directors, but Mad Men and Breaking Bad are, to me, clear A-and-Z bookends of the American Era.

It's only after that happens when the soldier has time to process what they've done that they run into trouble. I saw a documentary on this and it was talking about how there's a real disconnect between the how of a soldier's actions and the why with the increasingly effective training.

Soldiers and policemen have a terrible job. For psychopaths (2%) killing another person is easy. For everyone else, it's extremely difficult (even in self-defense) and something people generally avoid. Which means that an untrained normal person drawing against a psychopath is likely to be shot dead. This may not be new knowledge, but 85% of guns issued in the American Civil War were never fired.


I think a lot of that has to do with how in Vietnam they killed babies - and most importantly, heard uncontested stories of this sort of this from everywhere and most did nothing to stop it.

It'd be nice to blame this on something nice and tidy, like the public and their darned perceptions, but I think it's because Vietnam was just a dirtier war. (At least morally dirtier than much of what WW2 was for the common soldier, for instance.)


I have not seen research on the subject, but I expect that use of commitment devices can reduce decision fatigue. Steven King's story "Quitter's, Inc." gives an extreme example of the efficacy of commitment devices, but a more mundane example might be making an agreement with a friend to pay them $100 for each day you cheat on your diet in the next week. If you're an honest person, you won't be tempted by the thought of cheating, since that slice of cake won't be worth $100 to you. You don't have to constantly decide whether to cheat on your diet; you only have to decide once per week (or per month, or however long of a term you set for your "commitment contract"). What's more, decisions pertaining to the use of commitment devices seem to be made by an aspect of you that looks out for your long-term welfare, not the part that simply wants a donut now.


From the PNAS article (costs $10): "the ordinal position of cases is, with rare exception, determined by the arrival time of the prisoner’s attorney."

Although the researchers claim otherwise, I'm sure that eager and optimistic attorneys arrive for early slots. Prisoners expecting a favorable hearing probably demand that their attorneys be there early. This needs a properly randomized controlled experiment.


They mentioned what happened after lunch.


Considering how hard it is to make a choice, what is the optimal number of subscription plans for SaaS?

One? Three? Five?


I wonder what the optimal fatigue level is for your potential customer. Is it when they are more worn down and willing to go along with your recommendations or when they are less worn down and they have a more satisfactory experience making choices that are right for them?


I've noticed a lot of car dealers around here are now open until about 9:00 PM.


So, if you want a promotion you should go in the morning to your boss?


Unless in your circumstances it's easier and safer for him to just say yes. In that case go right before lunch, or late in the evening --I guess.


Only if you deserve it.


tl;dr anyone please? nytimes.com is blocked over here.


Did you know why dogs are fed sugar after obeying commands for some time? It's because a dose of glucose restores the willpower.

This stays true for humans. In supermarkets, we are offered sweet snacks at checkout—when we have little willpower, the reason being lots of choices we had to make while shopping. So both a) our brain requires more glucose and b) we can't resist sugar snacks anyway. No matter how junk that food might be.

And here's the key— ’Your brain does not stop working when glucose is low. It stops doing some things and starts doing others. It responds more strongly to immediate rewards and pays less attention to long-term prospects.‘

Unfortunately there are areas where decision fatigue might be critical: ‘In midmorning, usually a little before 10:30, the parole board would take a break, and the judges would be served a sandwich and a piece of fruit. The prisoners who appeared just before the break had only about a 20 percent chance of getting parole, but the ones appearing right after had around a 65 percent chance.’

Also, that might be the reason people stay poor: when you don't have a lot of money, you need to make much more tough choices. This depletes people's willpower, and consequently they are worse at other important stuff like education.

How to deal with decision fatigue? ‘People with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. <…> Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low. <…> The best decision makers are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.’

Very interesting article, actually. A lot of interesting stuff there. Is there no workaround to access nytimes from your area?


Thanks! I can access it through proxy but internet speed is slow, so that would take n seconds, at least it will take more than the time u spent writing your post. So, thanks for effort, interesting stuff, especially for the guy like me who comes from biology to computer science.


"Extraneous factors in judicial decisions"

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2011/03/29/1018033108

---

"The science of justice

I think it's time we broke for lunch…

Court rulings depend partly on when the judge last had a snack"

http://www.economist.com/node/18557594


>The science of justice That reminds me of the youtube series about justice. There is one channel on youtube, they upload videos from Harvard lectures about justice and law system. That one was very interesting and insightful. Sometimes students would even cry while debating with professor. Sorry cant post a link, since Youtube is also blocked here. Maybe some of you guys can post the link, there might be ones who are interested. Anyways, thanks for the effort of getting the idea of the post!


http://www.justiceharvard.org/

If you want to get a bit more out of the series, there are links to readings and discussion questions on the right of an episode page.


I'm curious what effect sleep, meditation, and rest would have on willpower.




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