How the Body Actually Influences the Most Impartial Decision Makers

Reading is a basic skill requirement for biblical scholars.1 Despite this fact, the reading body is regularly absent from discussions of this key skill. This absence can have some immediate, practical advantages. But in a larger picture, it ultimately proves problematic. Your body shapes how you read.

Because of the practical advantages of forgetting the reading body, it might be tempting to do just that. Surely, any difference that accounting for the reading body makes actually meaningful? Is the juice worth the squeeze?

A Study of Professional Deciders

To begin answering this question, it may be helpful to cite a now widely noted study about practitioners of that ideally most impartial of professions—the lawcourt judge. In particular, as reported by researchers from Ben Gurion University and Columbia University,

We test the common caricature … that justice is “what the judge ate for breakfast” in sequential parole decisions made by experienced judges. We record the judges’ two daily food breaks, which result in segmenting the deliberations of the day into three distinct “decision sessions.” We find that the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from ≈65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ≈65% after a break. Our findings suggest that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions.2

Options for Interpreting the Findings

These findings basically suggest either one or the other two conclusions. The system for scheduling the parole requests that these judges heard

  1. successfully—if inexplicably—tended to schedule intrinsically more meritorious requests for first thing in the morning or immediately after the judges’ snack breaks. In this interpretation, the judges could have decided all the cases with equal equity. It just so happened that the more meritorious ones tended to be grouped in the scheduling.
  2. distributed cases in the judges’ queues relatively equally with no grouping—intentional or otherwise—of those with greater merit. In this interpretation, despite their best efforts at impartiality, the judges’ bodies did influence their decisions about the parole requests (e.g., via hunger or fatigue).

Why There Really Is a “Hungry Judge Effect”

Unfortunately for the first interpretation, however, several factors make this understanding of the data infeasible. Among these are how

  • The judges determine when their two mid-day food breaks occur. When they decide to take each of these breaks, they have no knowledge of what cases they will hear next.3
  • The researchers observed significant variation in when the judges decide to take their breaks. This randomness would complicate any attempt to orchestrate a judge’s schedule to include certain requests in a certain sequence relative to the judges’ on-the-spot-selected food break times.4
  • The order in which cases appear before the judge is, “with rare exception, determined by the arrival time of the prisoner’s attorney.”5 But on arrival, attorneys are sequestered and have no knowledge of what cases the judge has heard that day or whether the judge has had a food break.6

So, the second interpretation seems genuinely to be supported. And to the extent that it is, it demonstrates how the body shapes decisions that are made even when impartiality is a key element of how one is attempting to make those decisions.


Biblical studies isn’t jurisprudence. But the kind of interpretive effort required by both shares a number of similarities.7 And biblical scholarship constantly calls upon you to decide—one way or another—about the meaning of this or that text. So, just as the judges in this study show how their bodies shape how they “read” the situations of the parole petitioners before them, your body also shapes how you read material pertinent to biblical studies.

  1. Header image provided by Marjhon Obsioma. For helping me to frame the posts in this series, I’m indebted to the suggestive comments of Thomas Mc Laughlin, Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 

  2. Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav, and Liora Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108.17 (2011): 6889. 

  3. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors,” 6892. 

  4. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors,” 6892. 

  5. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors,” 6892. 

  6. Danziger, Levav, and Avnaim-Pesso, “Extraneous Factors,” 6892. 

  7. E.g., see Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, ed. and trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, 2nd ed., Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 334–50. 

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