Meeting of the minds: law students flock to psychology lectures


In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks described psychology as a field that was taking off among young people, who were interested in probing for more accurate answers to the mysteries of human behavior. That might help explain why audiences packed the lectures of two Harvard psychologists who presented their research at the law school this September. Both talks, sponsored by the Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS), raised intriguing questions about the way our psychological intuitions are formalized in the law.

On September 8th, Daniel Wegner,  author of The Illusion of Conscious Will, presented several recent studies that examine the mechanism by which individuals come to identify their own and others’ behavior as intentional during his talk “Psychological Studies of the Guilty Mind.”

Wegner’s experiments suggest that people involved in a common activity, such as using an ouija-board, are often unable to discern which actions they produced themselves and which were caused by someone else. He described several other studies in which people misidentify behaviors as their own.  It has been shown in cases of facilitated communication, for example, in which a therapist helps an autistic patient type out answers to a question, that the messages communicated actually originate from the therapist and not the autistic patient, although the therapist reports no awareness that he or she actually produced the responses. This work suggests that while people feel as if they are the authors of their choices, this process is an evolved sensation and not the most descriptively accurate account for our behaviors. 

On September 21st, Fiery Cushman, a newly-minted PhD recipient and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Mind, Brain and Behavior Initiative, presented some of his recent research at an event titled “Outcome vs. Intent: Which Do We Punish, and Why?” Cushman’s work suggests that at a gut-level, people assess whether a behavior was morally right or wrong by looking at the actor’s intentions, but when assigning punishment, people are overwhelmingly interested in outcomes, even if an outcome was accidental.

Cushman described several experiments where he was able to look at a participant’s intentions in isolation from the actual outcome of the participant’s actions. In one case, participants were given the choice of dice that would later be rolled to assign rewards to a second, receiving party. When given the opportunity, the recipient would consistently punish more often when the dice produced less favorable rewards, even if the initial participant intended to provide rewards generously. This work has interesting implications for tort law, explaining in part why findings of negligence lead to large compensatory rewards even in the absence of any intentional action.

As this article went to press, SALMS was planning further events, including an October 22nd, discussion by Goutam Jois ’07 entitled “Stare Decisis is Cognitive Error”.
Founded in the late spring of 2009, The Student Association for Law & Mind Sciences (SALMS) is the outgrowth of Professor Jon Hanson’s Ideology, Psychology and Law seminar course as well as his Project on Law and Mind Sciences.  SALMS is the first student group at any law school merging law and mind and sciences and is already working with students at other law schools to create similar organizations around the country. Its speaker  series is intended to both introduce the legal community to relevant work in psychology and the related mind-sciences and to encourage mind scientists to explore the implications of their work for law and policy-making.

In recent years, the number of law review articles citing to prominent mind sciences research has skyrocketed, and  most top-tier law schools now  offer courses emphasizing relevant insights from social psychology and related fields.  In fact, the course descriptions of nine courses in the 2009-2010 HLS course catalog explicitly mention psychology. And in the wake of the recent financial crisis, economists and lawyers have turned increasingly to behavioral economics and social psychology to understand the underlying cognitive mechanisms that shape and influence our institutions. Psychology and neuroscience are increasingly informing and challenging some of the assumptions of the criminal justice system, and the mind science promise to help sharpen and clarify legal concepts.

In addition to co-sponsoring events with other HLS student groups, SALMS has already begun to forge close relationships with organizations across the University, including graduate and undergraduate students affiliated with the Harvard Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative.

The group is hoping to start a journal next fall to explore further interdisciplinary work in law and the mind sciences.  It would be the first academic journal of its kind in the world.