You Are Not So Smart

19 Apr

This great post by Rachel the week before last reminded me of an excellent blog I came across recently and thought meshed really well with the themes we address here. Over at You Are Not So Smart: A Celebration of Self Delusion, a self-described “journalist who loves psychology, technology and the internet” is summing up all manner of ways that our own brain doesn’t work the way we like to think it does.

For instance, in a recent post called The Sunk Cost Fallacy, the author gives a great explanation for something I’ve always wondered: what exactly is the appeal of Facebook games like FarmVille? He explains how humans experience loss more acutely than gain, so when we’ve invested time or money in something, we are extremely reluctant to abandon it even after we’ve quit having fun, earning profits, or whatever else led us to the activity in the first place. We routinely throw good money in after bad, as the saying goes.

After the jump: my thoughts on the legal implications of this and other You Are Not So Smart topics.

While the post on sunk costs primarily focused on how social gaming companies play directly on this human tendency—suggesting tasks with some remote payoff, dropping hints about the great in-game achievements ahead, using minor misfortunes to make you aware of the pang of loss you want to avoid feeling any further, and so on—I also saw a connection to our recent class discussion about legal education and law firms. I’ve often heard that associates who come to dislike the big firm environment are unlikely to strike out in a new direction for fear of losing the time they’ve already put into climbing the firm hierarchy. Staying miserable hardly seems like a solution for this, but as Professor Hanson mentioned, we may be trained to think that way from the first months of law school.

A map of Bernie Madoff's victims published in 2009 by the Wall Street Journal. Were they also victims of the Sunk Cost Fallacy?

In addition, in the actual courtroom context, I know the law tends to punish criminal or tort defendants less severely when there’s a sense the victim could have lessened the damage done. Yet in contexts anywhere from domestic abuse to Ponzi schemes, it might be worthwhile to acknowledge what a natural tendency it is to try to stick things out no matter how obvious their harms seem in hindsight. Maybe plaintiffs and crime victims shouldn’t be judged so harshly for such behavior.

Other awesome posts on You Are Not So Smart include Deindividuation (refuting the assumption that people engaged in riots retain their individuality and sense of right and wrong, therefore remaining very much culpable for their actions) and Subjective Validation (explaining how personality tests and horoscopes seem to describe us well because they actually describe everyone.)

But my personal favorite, at least in terms of relevance to our class, is The Just-World Fallacy. Without specifically naming system justification or inequality dissonance, this post pulls together a great lay summary of those theories, citing an experiment similar to the Milgram shock tests, people’s tendency to blame women who dress and behave in certain ways for becoming victims of rape, and other familiar examples to make a solid, approachable case for a less-than-just world we only justify out of self-protection. It’s something I think a lot of people in my life could stand to read.

It is infuriating when lazy cheats and con artists get ahead in the world while firemen and policemen put in long hours for little pay.

Deep down, you want to believe hard work and virtue will lead to success, and laziness, evil and manipulation will lead to ruin, so you go ahead and edit the world to match those expectations….

There are anecdotal accounts of people seeing the prisoners of concentration camps for the first time and assuming they must have been terrible criminals. The first place the mind goes is the place where the world is just.

For this and other pithy observations with abundant connections to our class, check out You Are Not So Smart today.

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