Vol. 29 No. 4 (April 2019) pp. 46-49

WHAT JUSTICES WANT: GOALS AND PERSONALITY ON THE U.S. SUPREME COURT, by Matthew E.K. Hall. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2018. 224 pp. Cloth $24.99. ISBN: 9781108462907.

Reviewed by Eileen Braman, Department of Political Science, Indiana University Bloomington. Email: ebraman@indiana.edu.

Matthew E.K. Hall’s new book, WHAT JUSTICES WANT: GOALS AND PERSONALITY ON THE U.S. SUPREME COURT, is major step forward in looking at judicial behavior in a creative and interesting way. It covers many of the topics law and courts scholars care about using innovative methods that allow us to study the effects of personality traits on the behavior of Supreme Court justices. This notable achievement should attract the attention of judicial scholars and students of political psychology alike.

Given the myriad of difficulties of ascertaining the traits of political elites “at a distance,” the study of personality went out of fashion in political science until the 1980s when psychologists discovered they could reliably measure traits and their behavioral correlates through mass survey techniques. Hall looks at five traits: Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Neuroticism, and Openness to Experience. These are, in theory, universal – that is, each trait is thought to exist in each person to some degree. They have been the subject of many psychological studies, offering a new window for political researchers to systematically assess the impact of personality of elite decision makers. In taking advantage of the linguistic software that is now available to measure traits, Hall is the first to investigate how aspects of personality influence behavior in the institution at the pinnacle of our judicial system.

Moreover, his approach is one of the first to take the “collegial” nature of collegial appellate court decision making seriously, on its own terms. When appellate court judges make decisions, they do so as a group rather than individually. The normative justifications for doing so vary. Group decision making can reduce bias, increase accuracy, and bring the representation of different points of view to judicial outputs. Group decision making also has important behavioral implications. To date judicial scholars have largely talked about the group decision in terms of social incentives, like collegiality, but there are others the group context raises. As it seems so integral to his approach, I think Hall could have addressed the research on group decision making a bit more fully. For example, there are really two distinct fields of psychological research on groups. One involves social influence – or the effect groups have on individual cognitive processes – while the other looks at group decision making in and of itself. From social influence research, we know that making decisions in the presence of others can have two contradictory effects. It can either cause “social loafing,” where decision makers employ less effort on a common task, assuming others will pick up the slack, or it can cause “social facilitation,” where the mere presence of others engaged in similar work makes individuals work harder. Psychologists have not been particularly good at figuring out when one versus the other phenomenon will occur. One individual difference that could explain these differing tendencies is the level of conscientiousness of the particular individuals in the group. A few of Hall’s hypotheses ultimately get at this, but if he had explicitly worked in some of our knowledge about social influence theory, it would have made for a much “richer” explanation. There are also findings in the group decision domain regarding polarization versus moderation of views in mixed groups. Again, sometimes the views of individual decision makers become more extreme, but other times they tend to moderate to accommodate the views of others in the group – and psychologists have had trouble saying which phenomenon will happen when. Often the different processes are explained by group composition, but such explanations are not always on target. It seems that the presence of [*47] individuals with more and less agreeableness might just as likely determine which process will prevail.

Other observations about the book fall into three broad categories concerning (1) Hall’s measures and data, (2) his conceptualization of goals related to specific personality traits, and (3) the conceptualization of what institutional behaviors should follow from those goals. Hall presents Supreme Court Individual Personality Estimates (SCIPE) scores of 34 justices on the Court from 1946 to 2015. From the graphic presentation of scores on each of the five personality dimensions, it looks like there is not much variation between justices on any of the “Big 5” traits. I would like to know where the justices’ scores fall in relation to the general populations for which we similar have data. It makes a lot of sense that the justices’ sores on these personality measures would be quite consistent because of self-selection and institutional selection processes (a Supreme Court justice is likely to be an attractive job for people with very similar traits; it is further reasonable that those who are successful enough to be appointed to the Court would have similar traits). Obviously, comparisons are about the justices’ behavior in relation to one another – and that is appropriate. However, I wonder how much research concerning high versus low levels of contentiousness really translates when we are talking about professionals who are probably much more similar than different when put in broader perspective. Even some of the relative comparisons are unexpected. For instance, given Hall’s rather lengthy discussion of the willingness of Justices Douglas and Black to accept privacy arguments in GRISWOLD V. CONNECTICUT in the book’s first chapter, I expected them to be very different on conscientiousness and/or openness to experience – in fact, it looks like their scores are not distinguishable on either dimension.

Moreover, the fact that three of the four female justices Hall looks at scored at the top of the list for neuroticism is problematic. Here, I think rather than try to justify fact that women tend to score high on this particular dimension it may be better to acknowledge that the linguistic software measure is probably not perfect. Along with personality traits, writing styles are likely to reflect other social constructs. Other social science scholars have used textual analysis to measure explanatory styles and integrative complexity. The writing of the justices probably also reflects gendered expectations. Females are likely to be more equivocal because even Supreme Court justices are a product of their social environment – this gets coded as nervousness and insecurity; thus the female justices score high on the neuroticism dimension. I think this sort of thing is probably endemic in Big 5 measures, not just with this particular software. I am not sure psychologists have adequately accounted for gendered expectations in studies of traits more generally.

With respect to the conceptualization of goals, there probably is there is more “slipperiness” in goals attributable to specific traits than Hall allows. Going back to the Black/Douglas dichotomy Hall details in the first chapter, Black’s rigidity and legal conservatism could either be attributable to his high conscientiousness or the fact that he is not very open to change. The same is true for what Hall characterizes as Douglas’ carelessness and his willing to embrace privacy even if it means going beyond the explicit language of the Constitution. Hall only defines goals for the high end of each dimension; for example, extroverts seek attention and influence, those low on extroversion do not. It seems important to consider the possibility that the low end of each trait comes with its own goals. Those who are low on extroversion not only shun attention – they actively pursue solitude. What might be the behavioral consequences of that goal on the Court? In some instances Hall does acknowledge this (i.e. those who are less conscientious will seek to avoid effort) but he does not really grapple systematically with the fact that individuals at the low poles may actively pursue a different set of goals.

In some instances, readers could quibble with the characterization of goals. I am not sure extroverts’ desire for social interaction is always and necessarily the same as a desire for “influence.” I think Hall could take more care in [*48] leading the reader down that inferential path. In several instances, he describes neurotics as particularly risk-averse especially with regard to potential criticism. It seems to me someone could make the argument that because risk seeking is particularly prevalent among individuals who are open to experience, the sort of caution he describes as an aversion to criticism might be more appropriately ascribed to those who are less open to experience (or more traditional/conservative in their perspectives).

The biggest question I have after reading this book is how we should think about confluence of traits. For instance, many of the justices who are high in extroversion are also high in neuroticism; often the predictions for institutional behavior for these two traits go in opposite directions. Hall suggests in the conclusion that the result might be a net effect of the two, or that one trait might trump the other – but there is a third possibility that, in my mind, makes good sense and that is that how behavior in pursuit of a particular goal manifests itself depends on other dimensions in a noncumulative fashion. This is similar to the concept of “gestalt” from perceptual psychology – the idea that the whole is different from the mere sum of its parts. For instance, one could theorize that agreeableness is agreeableness is agreeableness. However, an agreeable extrovert will seek social harmony in interactions with those she encounters at social gatherings; whereas an agreeable introvert might seek the same social harmony with others she encounters online at home. Moreover, the agreeable introvert who is open to experience might be interacting with new people on Twitter or Tinder; if one is not open to experience, however, they may just seek social harmony among existing friends and acquaintances on Facebook. The point is that the behavior one chooses to pursue similar goals might change depending on other aspects of their personality. One reason to be less concerned about this in the context of Hall’s inquiry is that the justices on the Supreme Court are acting in a common institutional framework; this helps but it does not solve the problem entirely. An extroverted professor at a university seeking intellectualism might seek to have a book symposium, while an introvert, at the same university, pursuing the same goal, might read several books on his own. Still, over and above this, Hall deals with tasks that are common to all the justices, which they must fulfill as part of their professional obligation; all the justices vote and write opinions at some point. That functional commonality goes a long way to ease my mind in this regard. Still I wonder if other avenues the justices use to pursue specific goals might get overlooked if this intuition is correct.

Finally, I do have issues with some of the behavioral manifestations Hall predicts from personality traits. With respect to cert voting, he posits that a sense of dutifulness affiliated with being conscientious would discourage the justices from voting to take cases. I am not sure, as Hall argues, the justices see taking cases as an opportunity to exert policy preferences over their sincere obligation to interpret the law. Rather, I think they see taking cases as part of their duty, especially when they think there has been a legal error below that needs to be corrected. Notwithstanding my skepticism, Hall does find a negative relationship between conscientiousness and voting for cert; honestly, I do not know what is underlying that relationship but I am not entirely convinced by his explanation. Also, at some points Hall seems to emphasize (and deemphasize) the different goals of justices. For example, he argues at several points in the book that neurotic justices like to express negativity, but he does not hypothesize that they dissent or write separate opinions more than other justices. Instead, Hall posits that neurotic justices are risk-averse, leading them to avoid criticism. In other words, they can dish it out but they can’t take it. Ultimately, Hall argues that neurotic justices’ aversion to attracting criticism that might be caused by writing separately, dominates over their inclination to express negativity, causing them to dissent and write separately less than other justices. Again, I think some readers may question the logic behind this intuition.
Notwithstanding these quibbles, Hall’s book is an impressive piece of work. Its insights are valuable for scholars, graduate students, and [*49] advanced undergraduates interested in Supreme Court dynamics and the practical implications of personality theory. The book did exactly what good books in the discipline are supposed to do: it made me think about how justices approach their tasks in an entirely different way. Hall is clearly pushing the envelope in the right direction.


GRISWOLD V. CONNECTICUT 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

© Copyright 2019 by author, Eileen Braman.