Conference Explores Ideology, Psychology, and Law

BY PAM MUELLER

The second annual Conference on Law and Mind Sciences, sponsored by Harvard’s Project on Law and Mind Sciences, led by Professor Jon Hanson, took place in Austin Hall last Saturday, March 8. The conference’s goal is to bring together social scientists and legal scholars to forge ties between the fields and to encourage discussion of research relevant to both disciplines. This year’s conference was entitled “Ideology, Psychology, & Law,” and addressed how ideologies can affect our decisions both as individuals and in the larger context of the legal system.

Approximately 100 attendees listened to presentations by leading social psychologists, including Mahzarin Banaji, Brian Nosek, Aaron Kay, Geoffrey Cohen, and Emily Pronin, Jim Sidanius, and also Yale Law professor Dan Kahan. After each set of presentations, Harvard Law professors Elizabeth Warren, Yochai Benkler, Jennifer Brown, and Joseph Singer engaged the panelists in discussion of how the research could best be applied to the law, whether within the court system or via policymaking.

Professor Banaji began the conference with a brief summary of what she and her team have found regarding the strong predictive power of identifying oneself as liberal or conservative. While she and many presenters tacitly equated ideology, especially conservative ideology, with harmful bias, Professor Nosek argued that ideology is essential to our perception of the world, and helps us to make sense of the millions of bits of information with which we are constantly bombarded.

The discussions led by law professors provided a new critical perspective for the social psychologists. While unanswered directly by the research, Elizabeth Warren kept up her reputation as an intense questioner by consistently returning to the issue of why social and fiscal conservatism were correlated. Jennifer Brown used her background in dispute resolution and mediation to suggest that one of Geoffrey Cohen’s findings about affirmation of individuals and its effect on arguments could be used to reduce polarization of juries in hotly contested cases with ambiguous facts.

Professor Hanson provided the capstone speech at this year’s conference, speaking about the effect of external situational forces on the creation and promotion of certain ideologies. In addition to leading the Project on Law and Mind Sciences and its two conferences at Harvard Law School, Professor Hanson has worked to bridge the gap between empirical psychological research and legal scholarship in his own work and via his professional relationships with social psychologists.

Professor Hanson and many of the other presenters at both Law and Mind Sciences conferences are also regular contributors to the Project’s blog, “The Situationist” (http://thesituationist.wordpress.com). The Project hopes to make videos of the conference presentations and discussions available online, and will announce this via the Situationist Blog. Those interested in additional research and discussion about the relationship between social psychology and law can also visit the blog.

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