Better to let 9x9x9 innocent numbers go free?

News that a million-dollar drug trial has been aborted because the jurors were playing Sudoku makes Steven Landsburg’s proposed incentive system suddenly look rather attractive.

Weighing evidence is a difficult job. It requires a lot of attention and a lot of energy. And it would be a good thing if juries performed that job with diligence. The way to make workers diligent, as every manager knows, is to reward them when they succeed and punish them when they fail. It would be easy to apply that principle to juries: When subsequent evidence reveals that jurors got the verdict right, send each of them a big fat check. When subsequent evidence reveals they got it wrong, hit each of them with a big fat fine. And if you worry the associated risk will discourage people from serving on juries, pay them each a big fat fee for serving in the first place.

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13 Responses to Better to let 9x9x9 innocent numbers go free?

  1. Bernard says:

    Serving on a jury is tantamount to serving a jail sentence. A prisoner can relate their experiences afterward but a jury member is sworn to silence. Having need to serve for three months with folk you may not much care for to the exclusion of your regular associates hearing a trial that may be as interesting as grass growing or tuning in to a Senate broadcast. An eighty-one grid is like having a birthday party.
    Thr judge wondered why the jury member was writing vertically- Su Do Ko was invented by a Japanese person.

  2. Why not have professional jurors?

  3. Michael W says:

    I can’t see why doing a Sudoko is incompatible with listening to evidence. It might actually stop the jurors’ minds from wandering. Just because they are sitting there doing nothing, doesn’t mean they are listening to every word. I bet the average juror does not have the cognitive capacity to pay attention to an entire murder trial. Is doodling also sufficient to disqualify them?

    (By the way, sudokos are only 9×9 – squares not cubes.)

  4. alao says:

    I think a major problem in keeping the attention of jurors is the passive nature of the activity. They have to sit there and take hours and hours of evidence, which they might find completely irrelevant, but are unable to ask questions to find out the information they think is key to making a decision.

    Jurors spend a lot of their time listening for key facts, pieces of information that make them think “aha!”, rather than trying to remember everything. Playing Sudoko between these moments of revelation seems like the perfect activity to prevent drowsiness.

  5. Andrew Leigh says:

    MW, I was trying to be conceptual – 9 numbers, 9 squares, 9 blocks.

    OSO, don’t we call them ‘judges’?

  6. I can sense the next step in this conversation – let’s make trials more interesting. We live in an interactive multimedia world – we need more images, virtual tours of crime scenes, more excursions as part of the trial, couldn’t judges wear more colourful clothes… I can’t see much merit in performance bonuses either. Seems to me that we need less full jury trials and more use of other variations (as appropriate), e.g. specialist jurors, smaller juries etc. We do need to sort out the nonsense situation where people are financially disadvantaged by being on a jury or employers having to pick up the tab for the loss of key individuals. On top of the above issues we also have the problem that we live in a pretty self-focussed age where service (for some) seems always to have a postscript, “What’s in it for me?”

  7. If you want decent jurors in a trial – those who are intelligent and who are paid well for making decisions based upon evidence and logic rather than passion and bias – then perhaps we need to have professional jurors. Are judges professional jurors?

  8. conrad says:

    On a more general level, one way around part of the problem would be to try and not have as much crime or people using the courts in the first case. This can and has worked in some areas and could be done in a number of ways — using mediators occurs in some areas now and has had reasonable success. Similarly, the decriminalization of marijuana has kept innumerate people out of court. If we gave up on the rest of the war against drugs, huge amounts of time and money would be saved in the courts (as well jail space, for that matter) — I imagine that includes the extra million dollars that this trial will cost.

  9. ChrisPer says:

    I have served on a jury, and what I have learned since about cognitive traps and ways of manipulating a presentation leaves me gobsmacked that juries apparently get it right so often.

    You dont need to reward them with cash. Explaining the criteria for doing a good job, then demonstrating and recognising that they did it well is actually very rewarding in itself.

    The critical thing in improving the quality of jury outcomes is probably to ensure that cases are presented in a sufficently clear way that the critical issues are identified and tested. This could be facilitated by a days training in argument mapping. Requiring cases to be presented with good argument maps would help a lot. I think the biggest weakness of the jury system is that its incredibly hard to present multiple strands of evidence, without confusing the hearer. The defense only has to undermine one strand sufficently and most of us as jurors lose confidence in the rest, yet the case as a whole is not rebutted at all.

  10. Don Arthur says:

    Maybe we could apply the same principle to economists.

    University economists would be required to stake 20% of their salary on predictions about changes to interest rates, unemployment etc.

    Each university would publish all predictions and rank economists according to their performance (as measured by their winnings in the betting market).

  11. Andrew Leigh says:

    Don, one of the projects on my burner at present is looking at how well academic versus business economists perform this role. I don’t think either do it particularly well, hence the need for macroderivatives.

    More broadly, we already have merit pay for university academics, since promotion decisions are based on research and teaching. Valuable as it is to predict the future, I think research/teaching is probably a slightly better metric.

  12. Graham Bell says:

    The much-maligned jurors have done Justice in Australia a great service. The have shown just how insulting the present system is to jurors; as well, they have exposed the present system to long-overdue and well-deserved ridicule.

    Orders of Australia all round for the sudoku players – “For services to the advancement of Justice”.

  13. Karen says:

    The problem with Steve Landsburg’s argument is that a case should only go to jury trial if there is a reasonable prospect of either a conviction or acquittal. If the prosecution’s case is so hopeless that no reasonable jury would convict, the case will not go to trial. If it is utterly obvious that the defendant is guilty (eg clear video footage, DNA evidence), a remotely rational defendant will plead guilty to get a lesser sentence (OK there are a few exceptions). So in almost all criminal cases, it is entirely open for the jury to either convict or acquit.

    The prosecution and defence will present evidence that is contradictory, and it is up to the jurors to decide, using subjective reasoning, which argument is more plausible. ‘Beyond reasonable doubt’ is a highly subjective term also. If ten juries heard the same case, it would be fair to expect that not all would come to the same verdict.

    If evidence that comes out after the trial proves the jury’s verdict wrong, in most cases this will not be because the jury didn’t pay sufficient attention or didn’t think enough. Promising payment or punishment for the ‘right’ answer from a jury will not help when the jury do not have all the facts to conclusively come up with the ‘right’ answer.

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