BY JENNY PAUL
Legal scholars have long been borrowing from economists to explain legal rules and doctrine. Examining the law through the lens of social psychological research is a more novel approach, one which will be front and center at the fifth annual Conference on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School. On Feb. 26 in Austin North, academics and students will discuss the latest research on the psychological causes and consequences of social inequality and its application to law and policy.
The conference, entitled “The Psychology of Inequality,” is an all-day event sponsored by the Project on Law and Mind Sciences (PLMS) and will feature four panels comprised of mostly mind scientists and several legal scholars.
“The larger ambition of the conference is to bring research of social scientists, particularly mind scientists, who are thinking about inequality to a legal audience,” said Prof. Jon Hanson, the director of PLMS.
Hanson has spearheaded planning for the conference, aided by his assistant, Carol Igoe, and about 30 law students, many of whom are part of the Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS), which was formed in Fall 2009. Part of the mission of the conference is to facilitate relationships between mind scientists and legal scholars and students interested in social science research – a cross-section of the legal community that is expanding, Hanson said.
“There is a growing sense that we are not going to understand our problems or how to solve them until we better understand ourselves,” he said. “Much legal theory in the late 20th century assumed that people are rational actors, and that our problems will be solved when the law gets out of the way of individuals pursuing their own preferences. Those assumptions are giving way to a sense that we’re not who we’ve imagined ourselves to be and that our problems are partially a consequence of that misunderstanding.”
SALMS President Matty McFeely ‘12 said it makes sense for law students to think about the implications of social psychological research as they embark upon their legal careers.
“The insights into human nature that are provided by psychologists are crucial for people who are going to go on to be future lawyers and policymakers, so they can make laws and judgments that are in the best interest of the people they are going to serve,” McFeely said.
Research about inequality is relevant to almost every legal issue – even those that arise in first-year courses like Torts, Contracts, and Criminal Law, “Inequality and concerns about inequality are fundamental to the law,” Hanson said. “I expect we will learn a lot at the conference about why people understand equality the way we do, why it matters.”
The conference is free and open to the public. Because space and food are limited, prospective attendees are highly encouraged to register online at.