Archive | March, 2011

You Think You’re So Smart…

30 Mar

“It is one of the essential features of such incompetence that the person so afflicted is incapable of knowing that he is incompetent. To have such knowledge would already be to remedy a good portion of the offense.”

~ W. I. Miller (quoted in Kruger & Dunning)

Most people believe that they are above average. Now, I’d be the first to tell you that I’m terrible at math, but even I can see something’s wrong here.

Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. (It's actually Lake Monowai in New Zealand, but never mind.)

This phenomenon — known by a variety of names, including the “above-average effect”, “superiority bias”, “illusory superiority”, and, my personal favorite, the “Lake Wobegon effect” — is manifested in a variety of areas, including bias, popularity, and driving ability. In short, whatever we’re talking about, odds are we think we’re better than most people at it.

One interesting variation on this theme is the Downing effect: according to a series of studies done by C. L. Downing, people with a below-average IQ tend to overestimate their IQ,  while people with an above-average IQ tend to underestimate their IQ. In a similar vein, studies by British psychologist Adrian Furnham suggest that, on average, men are more likely to overestimate their intelligence, while women are more likely to underestimate their IQ. Coincidence? I think not.

More on our inability to tell how smart we are after the jump.

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Ellen Langer on Mindfulness and Health

30 Mar

Ellen Langer is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. Her research covers topics such as the illusion of control, aging, decision-making and mindfulness theory. Her books written for general and academic readers include Mindfulness, The Power of Mindful Learning, On Becoming An Artist, and Counterclockwise. Her lab’s current work in progress is concerned with the interaction of mindfulness and health, business, and education.

In Counterclockwise, Professor Langer discusses how mindful living can affect our health. She talks about an immensely fascinating experiment she did with a group of elderly people. In the experiment, the elders were taken into a setting where they were instructed to live as if they are in 1959. After a week, she discovered that this group of people were acting significantly younger. Their hearing improved, they have stronger grip and more joint flexibility. In Professor Langer’s words:

Mindful health is not about how we should eat right, exercise, or follow medical recommendations, nor is it about abandoning these things… It is about the need to free ourselves from constricting mindsets and the limits they place on our health and well-being, and to appreciate the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health.

Professor Langer talks about many interesting ideas in her book. One is reverse Zeno’s Paradox. Continue reading

Income Inequality and SJT

29 Mar

Chrystia Freeland, the global editor-at-large at Thomson Reuters, recently wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times seeking to explain a recent study that revealed that Americans would prefer to live in a society “more equal than even highly egalitarian Sweden.”  If this is true, asks Freeland, then why are Americans generally complicit in our vastly unequal capitalist system?  Freeland offers as an explanation two phenomena, which she refers to as national self-confidence and the lottery effect. Readers of this blog will notice that these phenomena are outgrowths of System Justification Theory (SJT).

Freeland argues that national self-confidence manifests itself in a “widespread conviction that the American way is probably right because all those other ways don’t seem to work out so well. (despite the fact that the American way surely is not the best way to achieve socioeconomic equality). Additionally, she identifies what she calls  “the lottery effect,” which she analogizes to the lottery – Americans buy lottery tickets, despite the infinitesimal odds of winning, because they see other people just like them winning the lottery every week.  Freeland posits that “the nation’s rowdy form of capitalism is a lottery that has similarly bestowed fabulous rewards on the Everyman. The current leading exemplar of self-made billions is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and he may soon be outstripped by the even more instant cyber-star Andrew Mason, the founder of Groupon.”

Blasi and Jost’s article on SJT explains the underlying psychological processes behind these phenomena: “system justification serves a palliative function, operating as a coping mechanism for members of both advantaged and disadvantaged groups, reducing anxiety, uncertainty, and distress.”  In other words, individuals rationalize the status quo in the ways identified by Freeland in order to minimize the negative effect of the dissonance between the world they wish to live in and the one they actually do live in.  Further, the very asking of a question that calls into doubt the American way can increase the motive to justify, as system justification motives become most evident when we perceive a threat to the legitimacy of a system to which we are attached.

Unfortunately (from the perspective of those Americans who desire of a more egalitarian society), individual acts of system justification result in continued inequality. Increased system justification alleviates people’s negative emotional states, and thereby undermines support for the redistribution of resources and the desire to help the disadvantaged.

Dan Simon

29 Mar

Can it all be so simple?

It has become a relatively common aphorism, at least in certain circles, that ‘we are all realists now.’ (The we, in this case, are members of the legal community. The rest of society, living in reality, may be asking where have y’all been all this time?) Indeed, legal realist insights have empowered legal movements as diverse as Critical Legal Studies and Law & Economics. Legal realism has also helped empower greater honesty from judges about the nature of the judging process. A variety of judges, ranging from Richard Posner to Patricia Wald, have acknowledged the heavy role of hunch and instinct which first causes a judge to lean towards the eventual direction that their decision will take. However, a ‘hunch’ hardly seems to summon the ‘correctness’ that we expect from the law, nor match the ultimate solemnity of a judicial opinion. If a ‘hunch’ is the driving cause of the ultimate outcome of a judicial decision, which is then subsequently reified into a formal legal document, how much can we trust the final document? Furthermore, a ‘hunch’ hardly accords with the Talmudic process of asthmatic inducing research in dusty law books (or, thanks to technology, carpal tunnel from Westlaw searches) that is supposed to produce the legal certainty and ‘correctness’ that we demand, even as we know it’s a fool’s errand, from the judicial process. (See Roberts, John and his infamous strike zone.) Indeed, how do judges, themselves, manage to summon, in their opinions, the certainty, expressed in at least relatively formal legal reasoning which they undermine with their extra-judicial descriptions of the very same process. If only a legal academic could investigate these pressing issues! The legal academic who does follows after the jump.

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Diane Rosenfeld

28 Mar

Diane Rosenfeld

Diane Rosenfeld is currently working with states to utilize GPS monitoring of batterers by offering assistance to state legislators on developing and implementing legislation.  The legislation that she proposes requires offenders to wear an electronic bracelet equipped with GPS, which enables law enforcement to monitor the movements of an offender.  Rosenfeld notes that this early warning system can be the difference between life and death for endangered women.  Protective orders, which commonly establish exclusionary zones from which the offender is prohibited, offer no protection unless enforced by police – Rosenfeld claims that about a quarter of protective orders are violated. GPS monitoring would likely have several beneficial effects for protecting women:

  • Ensures more effective police enforcement of protective orders by alerting police when a batterer is in the exclusionary zone.
  • Encourages women to seek protective orders, as they can be more confident that they will be effective tools.
  • Dissuades batterers who may otherwise feel that they can violate the protective order without consequence.
  • Provides courts with proof of a violation of a protective order.

Police in 15 states are beginning to use GPS technology for those who violate restraining orders against them.  Each state’s program differs, but in general, offenders wear an ankle bracelet that is tracked by GPS and monitored 24 hours a day. They are barred from certain “restriction zones,” such as such as the victim’s home, workplace, a child’s school, or anywhere their victims are known to be, and if they violate those zones, authorities know instantly. Rosenfeld highlights the success of the pilot program she helped create here in Massachusetts. The Greater Newburyport High-Risk Case Management Team reports no domestic homicides, 100 percent success using GPS monitoring (meaning neither re-assaults nor violations of protection orders) and a conviction rate of offenders of more than 90 percent.

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Dr. Marty Seligman

28 Mar

As an undergraduate, Dr.Marty Seligman and his research on positive psychology had a major impact on not only on my academic pursuits, but on my personal life.  When Mary Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association in 1996, he declared that he would spend his tenure at the APA on helping psychology move  away from the empirical study of depression and pessimism towards the empirical study of happiness and optimism.  This Positive Psychology model is an alternative to psychology as the “mere” prevention of distress and disorder to a model that explores human greatness. Given the opportunity to interview Dr. Seligman, I would ask him questions about his empirical findings, the creation and future of the positive psychology movement, and his own personal experience with the findings of positive psychology.

Seligman describes that “there are human strengths that act as buffers against mental illness: courage, future-mindedness, optimism, interpersonal skill, faith, work ethic, hope, honesty, perseverance, the capacity for flow and insight,” and that in the new century, a large task of prevention will be “to create a science of human strength whose mission will be to understand and learn how to foster these virtues in young people.”

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A Proposal for the use of Psychodrama in Law School

27 Mar

Kingsfield lectures in "The Paper Chase"

The Christmas before I came to law school my parents gave me a DVD of The Paper Chase.  It’s a common gift for future law students even though it’s dated and lacks the acting prowess of Reese Witherspoon. The movie follows Hart during his first year at Harvard Law School, focusing on the adversarial relationship between Hart and his intimidating contracts professor, Charles Kingsfield.  In one memorable scene, Kingsfield calls on Hart to explain the case of Hawkins v. McGee–the case of the “Hairy Hand.” Though unprepared for class, Hart manages to fumble through the legal reasoning and arrive at the correct legal application. He emerges distraught but victorious.

Law School has become somewhat kinder since the era of Professor Kingsley, but the teaching method remains largely the same. The casebook and Socratic method endure.  Professors ask students how the law should be applied in a case then expose the logical flaws in students’ arguments.  The goal of this method is to teach students how to interpret theories, statutes and precedents correctly while also honing their legal reasoning skills.  Those students who best navigate the delicious ambiguity and grey areas of the law are rewarded with high grades and a spot on the law review.  The greatest of the legal reasoners take their skills to the Moot Court competition.  The winner there is whoever best argues that the law favors their client regardless of whether it actually does.

The law school pedagogy creates a culture that values the type of work law students pursue rather than the merits of their cases.  The legal community grants prestige to lawyers who argue before the Supreme Court but cares little about which side they represent.  I believe these values derive from a legal education that discourages sentimentality and feeling. The renowned trial lawyer Gerry Spence found similar fault in his own legal education.

“What we really experienced in law school was a lobotomy of sorts, one that anesthetizes the law student against his emotions and attempts to reduce law to some sort of science.” – Gerry Spence (Win Your Case p. 77) Continue reading

Three Scholars Worth Your Time: Part 7

9 Mar

Rebecca Bigler

Rebecca Bigler, Professor of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

I once heard Dr. Bigler, who leads the Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab at my alma mater, at a training I attended as a Resident Assistant in the university dorms. I was blown away by her account of the numerous subtle forces shaping children’s perceptions of traits like intelligence, kindness, and leadership among different races and sexes and how easily these perceptions can be manipulated through simple changes. Her amazing “red shirt, blue shirt” experiments are especially worth attention.

Amy J.C. Cuddy, Assistant Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School

I saw Dr. Cuddy’s presentation at this weekend’s Law and Mind Sciences Conference, and I would love to learn more about the “ambivalent stereotypes” and “warmth and competence” dichotomy she described. And as a Texas-friendly girl at a competitive East Coast law school, I couldn’t agree more with the title of her recent Harvard Business Review article, “Just Because I’m Nice, Don’t Assume I’m Dumb.

Terrie Moffitt, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University

Earlier this month, I was fascinated by an NPR story featuring recent findings that self-control in children is highly correlated with positive outcomes later in life. Dr. Moffitt headed the team of researchers who saw those results in a group of 1,000 people from New Zealand. As she told NPR, “Children who had the greatest self-control in primary school and preschool ages were most likely to have fewer health problems when they reached their 30s.” In addition, “Identical twins are not identical on self-control…. That tells us that it is something they have learned, not something they have inherited.” I think Dr. Moffitt’s research could have major implications for the law and think we should all think and talk about those further.

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