The Cautionary Effect of Formality: An Experimental Investigation of Chinese Judges


The Cautionary Effect of Formality: An Experimental Investigation of Chinese Judges

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Previous studies suggest that one function of formality in law is that it makes people cautious before conducting a legally binding action. Translated into psychology, this means that formality activates the controlled and analytical cognitive processes, and induces people to deliberate. Theories predict that, under such circumstances, people ponder more carefully, and make less impulsive decisions. We tested this formality-cautionary effect in judicial decision-making. In a series of four experiments, we recruited Chinese judges (n= 184) to decide cases that evoked strong tensions between emotional instincts and deliberate decision outcome. Four treatment conditions were used as a proxy for formality. In study 1, we tried the structure of judicial opinion: judges in the treatment group were asked to write down formal reasons first, and then to give verdicts; judges in the control group did the opposite: they rendered verdicts first, and then gave reasons. In study 2, we used legalese as the stimulus: judges in the treatment group read legal arguments written in a more formalistic style than those presented to the control group. In study 3, we explored a priming effect from formalistic legal context: judges in the treatment group were asked to supply a complex legal definition before they made decisions. Yet the question simply framed a formal context, and was irrelevant to the case issue they were about to decide. In study 4, we tested the effect from publicity: judges in the treatment group were told their decisions were to be made public and discussed by law students. We found the formality-cautionary effect in studies 1 to 3, but not in study 4. The results provide empirical evidence of the cautionary function of formality in law. Some types of formalities can be seen as a de-biasing mechanism that curbs intuition’s adverse influence in the judicial process.


  • Professor Xueyao Li
    Professor Xueyao Li, Professor of Law / Director of Law and Cognitive Science Centre