Judges Give Harsher Sentences When Their Football Team Loses

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Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

In certain parts of the country, football is religion, with all the transcendence and heartache that spiritual experience offers. Judges, on the other hand, are thought to be stern bastions of rationality, handing out punishments in equal measure to crimes. According to a new working paper looking at judges in Louisiana, you don’t want to be the defendant when the two come together.

For their paper, Louisiana State University economists Ozkan Eren and Naci Mocan analyzed juvenile court decisions made between 1996 and 2012. They found that for judges who went to LSU for undergrad, a Tigers’ loss led to disproportionately harsher sentencing. It was especially damaging if the Tigers were toppled in their quest for a national title: If they were ranked in the Top 10 and suffered an unexpected loss, an additional 63 days were tacked onto judgements the following week, on average. For a lower-stakes game, an unexpected loss was linked with another 36 days. It breaks down by race, too: An upset loss leads to an additional 46 days for black defendants, the researchers found, while white defendants get hit with one-sixth of that impact. “This disparity in sentencing following an upset loss implies unequal treatment of black defendants, triggered by an outside event, unrelated to the merits of the case,” the authors write.

Emily DeRuy, who covered the paper for the Atlantic, notes that the analysis included 8,200 records with 207 different judges. The researchers only looked at first-time offenders who were between 10 and 17 years old, and they excluded murder and aggravated rape cases, since those carry mandatory minimums. Mocan told DeRuy that he hopes the paper will add to the body of research linking emotional states and unrelated decisions. (Psychologists call it the affect heuristic: The way you feel primes your judgments. For a case in point, consider how much less annoyed you are with your boyfriend or girlfriend after you’ve had dinner. Similarly, a 2011 study concluded that Israeli judges are more likely to deny parole when they’re hungry.) Mocan says that he hopes judges “will be more careful” about recognizing how emotional shocks (like a crushing LSU loss to Alabama) affect their decision-making. At a neural level, emotions are part of the way humans make decisions, so they might as well be aware of it. The stakes are children’s lives.