American Judges Association


Date of this Version



Court Review, Volume 49, Issue 2 (2013)


Copyright American Judges Association. Used by permission.


Scientists carefully study how our brain processes information, though judges rarely consider these studies. But this research has great potential significance to judges, who spend much of their time making decisions of great importance to others. Although the study of how the brain processes information is an evolving one, the information now available can help judges to make better decisions.

Much of the processing for simple tasks—called reflexive processing—occurs in the background, while most of us solve riddles or math problems through reflective processing, which is deliberate and conscious. The reflective system has a limited capacity, so we operate on a principle of least effort, tending to rely on the reflexive system when possible. To do so, we often use what scientists call schemas, in which characteristics of objects, people, or behaviors coalesce into an easily recognizable pattern (like our ability to tell that a red octagon in the distance is a stop sign).

Heuristics are schemas that are based on only part of the information available—letting us make decisions more quickly. But heuristics can be faulty in a variety of ways. And since heuristics (like all schemas) operate in the world of unconscious, reflexive processing, we can easily make errors without recognizing the source of a faulty decision. Anchoring is one of these heuristics: for example, a person is likely to give a higher or lower estimate of damages if a particularly high (or low) figure is introduced early in the process. That number— even if far off the mark—tends to act as an anchor around which later estimates are formed.