Hungry judges hang ’em high - what it means for donors

publication date: Sep 28, 2011
What do the parole decisions of judges have to do with asking for a gift? Perhaps more than you'd think. Researchers from Columbia University and Ben Gurion University uncovered a clear correlation between the judges' food breaks and their favourable or unfavourable decisions.

Soon after eating, the judges were much more likely to award parole than later on in the day. Well-fed, their rate of approval was 65%; after several hours without a break, their approval rate dropped to almost zero. After a food break, the rate returned suddenly to 65%.

"Our findings suggest," the researchers conclude, "that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions." They blame mental fatigue. Tired judicial brains, they believe, find it easier to deny parole than to make a more taxing decision and return a convicted criminal to society.

Mental fatigue may affect any decisions

Roger Dooley, blogging on, cites researcher Jonathan Levav's opinion that the effect of mental fatigue could happen "anywhere where there is sequential decision-making and some kind of status quo or default that allows people to simplify those decisions."

If judges are swayed towards the status quo that easily, he suggests, it's likely that customers, clients and consumers behave the same way.

If we extend this idea to donors - your donors - what might it mean? Following Dooley's reasoning about customer behaviour, you'll want to ask at different times, depending on whether you want recurring or habitual gifts, or a first-time or significantly higher gift.

The status quo product or gift

Think you should avoid meetings right before lunch or at the end of the day? Not necessarily, provided you only want your donors to repeat their giving behaviour. Gifts of amounts they've given before, or to projects they've supported previously, are status quo gifts. Those are easier decisions than denying or changing a habitual gift. If Dooley's right, your odds of acceptance may actually be higher at those mental "down times."

The change gift

If you're asking donors to do something quite different - to give a much larger amount or support a different project - that's the time to make sure they're fed and mentally fresh. If you have to accept an appointment right before lunch, Dooley suggests stretching the appointment so you can take your prospects to lunch. Use the pre-lunch time to schmooze and impart simple information. Avoid trying to close or to present complex details. Save all that for after lunch, when your donors' energy is higher and they're more ready to deal with the challenge of choosing the unfamiliar.

If you can't persuade your donors to dine with you, then bring treats as long as you're sure they'll be comfortable with that behaviour. Restoring their blood sugar will quickly reduce their mental fatigue.

And if you ever end up in traffic court, be sure to go right after lunch!

Read Roger Dooley's article at

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