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Questions about the connection between law and mind sciences

The law is based on reasoned analysis, devoid of ideological biases or unconscious influences. Judges frame their decisions as straightforward applications of an established set of legal doctrines, principles, and mandates to a given set of facts. Or so we think.

As the Supreme Court debates President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law — sometimes dubbed ObamaCare — it’s important to remember that unreasoned, impartial law is largely an illusion. As far back as 1881, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote that “the felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed.”

We sat down with Director of the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School (PLMS) and editor of Ideology, Psychology, and Law, Professor Jon Hanson, to discuss the interaction of psychology and the law, and how they form ideologies by which we all must live.

What sparked your interest in the study of mind sciences and the law?

My interest has evolved through several stages. Although I studied economics in college, I did so with special interest in health care policy, where the life-and-death decisions have little in common with the consumption choices imagined in neoclassical economics. Purchasing an appendectomy through insurance has little in common with buying a fruit at the market.

After college, I spent a year studying the provision of neonatal intensive care in Britain’s National Health Service, attending weekly rounds with neonatologists at London hospitals, meeting with pediatricians in rural English hospitals, interviewing nurses who were providing daily care for the infants, some of whom were not viable, and speaking with parents about the profound challenges they were confronting. Those experiences strengthened my doubts regarding the real-world relevance of basic economic models for certain types of decisions.

In law school, I studied law and economics, but tended to focus on informational problems and externalities that had been given short shrift by some legal economists at the time. After attending a talk by, and then meeting with, the late Amos Tversky, I became an early fan of the nascent behavioral economics movement.

It wasn’t, however, until I spent a couple of years immersed in cigarette-industry documents in the early and mid 1990s that I felt the need to make a clean break from the law’s implied psychological models and to turn the mind sciences for a more realistic alternative.

What was it about the cigarette documents that had that effect?

Well, they made clear that the tobacco industry articulated two views of their consumers – an inaccurate public portrayal, and a more accurate private view.

The first, which the industry conveyed to their consumers and to lawmakers, was of smokers who are independent, rational, and deliberate. Smokers smoke cigarettes because they choose to, because smoking makes them happier, even considering the risks. The industry thus gave consumers a flattering view of themselves as autonomous, liberated actors while assuring would-be regulators that there was no need to be concerned about the harmful consequences of smoking. Smokers were, after all, just getting what they wanted.

The second view of the consumer, which was evident in the industry’s internal documents, was of consumers as irrational, malleable, and manipulable. The industry’s confidential marketing strategy documents, for instance, made clear that the manufacturers theorized and experimented to discover how to target, persuade, lure, and chemically hook young consumers to take up and maintain the smoking habit. That internal understanding of consumers had nothing in common with the industry’s external portrayals.

I came to the realization that, unfortunately, the latter view of the human animal is far more accurate and, furthermore, that failure to understand the actual forces behind human behavior may be contributing to injustice.

How did that realization influence your research?

In the late 1990s, I put my writing down and devoted a couple of years to learning what I could about the mind sciences – social psychology, social cognition, cognitive neuroscience, and the like. Those fields, coincidentally, were blossoming with new theories, new methodologies, and new findings and insights, most of which created challenges to the fundamental assumptions in law and legal theory.

First, mind scientists had learned that most people in western cultures operate with a naïve and commonsensical model of human psychology that presumes that an individual’s actions reflect a stable personality or disposition and little else. From that perspective, people are presumed to be in control of, and responsible for, their behavior and its consequences.

By the way, that’s the same model of human behavior that is employed in law and conventional legal theory. And it’s the same model that the tobacco industry actively promoted.

The second big insight was that that model of human behavior is fundamentally wrong. People are moved less by a stable disposition and more by internal and external forces that generally go unnoticed in our causal stories. The errors go beyond our causal assessments of other people’s behavior; we confuse and deceive even ourselves, believing our own reasons, when social science reveals those reasons often turn out to be mere confabulations.

What does that mean for the law?

Exactly. That’s the big question. My briefest answer is: a lot.

Given the large gap between what the law assumes and what the mind sciences have shown to be true, my initial goal has been to understand the breadth and contours of that gap and to develop a better understanding of the psychological and contextual forces behind human behavior. I have resisted the strong urge to focus on only those psychological tendencies that can lead to straightforward but narrow implications for law.

Having said that, abandoning the familiar, if wrong, conception of human behavior is daunting and unsettling; it calls for establishing new knowledge structures and being open to some humbling truths about ourselves and some uncomfortable truths about our justice system.

I expect that several generations of lawmakers, legal academics, and lawyers will be grappling with the implications of what mind scientists are discovering about human behavior. Indeed, they will have to do so, if we are ever going to find meaningful solutions to many of our thorniest policy challenges.

Can you say more about how the field has evolved and your involvement in it over the last 20 years?

Well, 20 years ago, only a small but important corner of psychology known as “decision theory” or “behavioral economics” was getting much attention among legal theorists. Roughly, the research and evidence in that field disputed the “rationality” assumption of the “rational actor” model. I co-authored several articles arguing that those insights suggested that market actors could, would, and do manipulate the risk perceptions of consumers.

A decade ago, I co-wrote a pair of law-review articles (“The Situation” and “The Situational Character”) introducing some of the broader insights of mind sciences and speculating on some of their implications for law. The articles were among the first of their kind, and contested even the “actor” portion of the “rational actor” model. At the time, many readers from legal academia found the research we reviewed to be foreign and hard to fathom.

Five years ago, I began the Project on Law and Mind Sciences. With then-Dean Kagan’s support, some technical know-how from Michael McCann, and the aid of many outstanding students, I set up a website and blog and began holding annual conferences intended to help bridge the gap between the law and the mind sciences. In the meantime, numerous books have popularized the mind sciences, and several new law school programs and projects have been established around the country reflecting and reinforcing this burgeoning interdisciplinary approach.

As of today, the mind sciences are, well, hot. There is now almost too much scholarship for me to keep up with, judges are beginning to cite such research in their opinions, and student groups are springing up in law schools, including the vibrant Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (or “SALMS”) at Harvard Law School. Every year, I hear from more 1Ls who tell me they chose Harvard Law School because of the exciting work that we’ve been doing.

Director of the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School (PLMS), Professor Jon Hanson has long combined social psychology, economics, history, and law in his scholarship. After PLMS hosted several conferences featuring leading mind scientists and legal scholars, Hanson collected the work of many of the contributors in a book he edited, Ideology, Psychology, and Law. Jon Hanson is the editor and co-founder of the Situationist Blog. This is a part of a larger interview with Jon Hanson which originally appeared on the Harvard Law School website.

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Recent Comments

  1. Graham Douglas

    Thank you for this article. We need much more awareness in all fields of the implications for our lives of the recently much improved understanding of the human mind.

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