Motivational Drivers for Serial Position Effects in High-Stakes Legal Decisions

Ori Plonsky, Daniel L. Chen, Liat Netzer, Talya Steiner, and Yuval Feldman


Experts and employees in many domains make multiple similar but independent decisions in sequence. Often, the serial position of the case in the sequence influences the decision. Explanations for these serial position effects focus on the role of decision makers’ fatigue, but these effects emerge also when fatigue is unlikely. Here, we suggest that serial position effects can emerge due to decision makers’ motivation to be or appear to be consistent. For example, to avoid having inconsistencies revealed, decisions may become more favorable towards the side that is more likely to put a decision under scrutiny. As a context, we focus on the legal domain in which many high-stakes decisions are made in sequence and in which there are clear institutional processes of decision scrutiny. We analyze two field datasets: 386,109 US immigration judges’ decisions on asylum requests and 20,796 jury decisions in 18th century London criminal court. We distinguish between five mechanisms that can drive serial position effects and examine their predictions in these settings. We find that consistent with motivation-based explanations of serial position effects, but inconsistent with fatigue-based explanations, decisions become more lenient as a function of serial position, and the effect persists over breaks. We further find, as is predicted by motivational accounts, that the leniency effect is stronger among more experienced decision makers. By elucidating the different drivers of serial position effects, our investigation clarifies why they are common, when they are expected, and how to reduce them.


sequential decision making; judicial decision making; legal decisions; order effects;

Published in

Journal of Applied Psychology, 2023, forthcoming