Researchers in the Field

Researchers in the Field / Empirical Legal Center for Research Excellence 

The first center for research excellence to be established by the Council for Higher Education in the legal field will be based at the Hebrew University. The center, which will include researchers from various faculties in the Hebrew University and the Technion, will focus on empirical research examining decision-making processes in the legal field. Professor Eyal Zamir and Dr. Doron Teichman of the Law Faculty explain the process that led to the establishment of the center and the studies it will pursue.

“The main contribution the center makes is to provide a more stable foundation for future legal thought.” This was the summary offered by Professor Eyal Zamir regarding the importance of the new Excellence Center for Research in the Hebrew University – the first of its kind in Israel. The center is headed by Professor Ilana Ritov of the university’s School of Education and Cognition Studies, and focuses on empirical legal research.           

The new center was established as part of the second wave of the I-CORE program (Israeli Center for Research Excellence), which was initiated in 2010. The program has already established 15 centers for excellence in various fields and serves as a flagship project channeling significant funds for academic research in Israel. In addition to promoting research, the program also encourages the recruitment of new faculty members, including Israeli academics who have left the country as part of the “brain drain” phenomenon. Dr. Yonatan Givati, for example, has returned from his doctoral studies at Harvard Law School and Harvard Economics Department and will be joining the new center of excellence. The members of the center will receive research grants in order to enable them to devote themselves to their research work.


How did you initiate your proposal?


“A preliminary request for proposals was issued to examine relevant issues,” says Teichman, a member of the team that drafted the proposal. “This was basically a brainstorming process, and of about 1,200 ideas 18 were selected. One of them was empirical legal research. Over 60 proposals were submitted in the various fields, and finally 11 were chosen.”            

Were you surprised when you won?


“Actually,” Zamir admits, “when we received the report on our preliminary proposal we did not think we would win. We improved our proposal in line with the comments we received on the pre-proposal and eventually won the grant.”




Dr. Doron Teichman

Decision Making in the Field


The new Center for Research Excellence (CRE) promotes an interdisciplinary approach. In addition to its head Professor Ritov, the members include several other researchers from non-legal fields: Dr. Assaf Zussman and Dr. Moshe Shayo of the Economics Department; Professor Yishai Yaffe, dean of the School of Business Administration; and two professors from the Technion – Ido Erev and Eldad Yechiam. In addition to Zamir and Teichman, Professor Alon Harel and Professor Assaf Hamdani of the Law Faculty are also members of the center.



How did this team come together?

“Our goal was to create a team with a common methodological approach,” Teichman explains. “We might disagree on specific issues, but the proposal itself focuses on the examination of the decision-making process. Eyal and I worked with Ilana Ritov, who is an expert on decision making, and together we decided to look for people who would be suited to this framework.”


What will the center do?

“We will engage in the empirical study of economic and behavioral analysis,” says Teichman. “Our work will focus to a large extent on economics and psychology. We want to examine dimensions of rationality and irrationality in decision making.”


Zamir expands: “You can divide empirical studies into two and half types. The first type consists of empirical studies that seek to create and analyze the largest possible database about a given reality in order to see how law affects that field. The problem is that it is very difficult to isolate the different factors explaining outcomes. The second type is experimental, focusing on an examination of the differences between a trial group and a control group. In experimental studies, one can isolate the effect of specific variables, though sometimes the external validity of the findings, outside of the laboratory, is unclear.”


What about the half type?

“That’s an attempt to take the best of both worlds – randomized field experiments. We go into the field and try to introduce random changes in order to examine their impact on reality. This solves the problems of identification and validation.” 

By way of example, Teichman describes a study undertaken by Zussman: “he publishes a sales advertisement on various online boards and examines whether the seller’s name influences the number of calls received. All the other details in the advertisements are identical. So far, it seems that advertisements with Arab names receive fewer calls. After he discovered this, he started to look into private advertisements without names, and found that a disproportionate number of these were placed by Arabs.”



Replacing Intuition with Information

The CRE is a collection of several researchers under a single roof. The methodological format is unified, but the studies themselves vary. 

“One of my studies, for example,” says Teichman, “examined a question that relates both to law and society and to law and economics. I investigated why Israelis quote prices in dollars in real estate transactions. This seems strange, since signing an agreement in foreign currency incurs risks. Such behavior is rational in conditions of hyperinflation or when the central bank controls foreign currency, as was the case in the past in Israel. But this phenomenon continued even though Israel has adopted a free market model and the inflation rate was dramatically lowered.”







Professor Eyal Zamir

What did you discover?

“This phenomenon continued to be seen until the subprime crisis and the fall in the dollar. I looked at archives of real estate advertisements and found that within a few months they all switched from dollars to shekels.”            

Did you investigate why this happened?

“In my interviews I realized that people still think about their apartments in dollar terms. This may be a case of status quo bias – switching from dollars to shekels constituted a change, and people are reluctant to make changes. As a result people made inefficient contracts until they learned the hard way and lost large sums of money.”



Zamir gives an example of a study that leans more to the experimental side. Zamir, Teichman and Ritov “presented the respondents with a scene where someone has been caught speeding at night. We asked whether they would convict the person. In half of the questionnaires the person was caught by a speed camera, while in the other half two cameras at different points recorded the precise time in which the car passed by them, so that the speed could be calculated according to the distance between the two cameras and the time elapsed. There was a huge difference in the willingness to convict the offender in favor of the speed camera. A series of similar experiments established that there seems to be a psychological pattern – people are hesitant to convict someone on the basis of an inference, even when the objective probability and the subjective probability estimates are similar.”


Is this phenomenon seen in the contemporary legal world?

“In some cases the legislator defines offenses relating to behaviors that don’t really bother us that much, such as possessing stolen goods or being found near a bank with a tool that could be used for burglary. The legislator is concerned that the judge will not draw the conclusion that someone who possesses stolen goods is a thief, so it solves the inference dilemma.” 

Does this mean that future legal experts will be statisticians?


“Legal thought includes a very strong normative foundation: what goals and values do you want to promote? These studies mustn’t be seen as competition for legal thinking: they are merely an addition. They will never replace conventional legal thought, but they will replace intuition with information. It is important to recall that intuition is merely the first step in the process of legal thought.”