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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. Continue reading

Colorblind (But Not Really)

19 Apr

Aunt Vivian: Gee, when Janice described him she didn’t mention that he was…tall. Not that I have a problem with people who are…tall.
Uncle Lester: My cousin used to date a girl who was…tall.
Uncle Phil: Heck, the boy go to a predominantly…tall school.
Will: Now, am I alone on this or didn’t y’all notice he was white?

~ Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (Episode #2.6, Guess Who’s Coming to Marry)

In a short article in the February/March 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, Siri Carpenter discusses two studies done by psychologists at Tufts and Harvard indicating that people who avoid mentioning race may actually appear more prejudiced. In the experiment, one white participant was paired up with one black participant, and they were each given the same set of photographs of random people. The black participant would choose a photograph, and the white participant had to figure out as quickly as possible which photograph his/her partner had chosen by asking him/her questions about each one in succession. The study was designed so that the matching process would go much faster if the white participant asked about the race of the person in the photograph. Significantly, the study found that the “intrepid few” who asked about race were deemed less prejudiced by black observers than the vast majority of white participants who didn’t mention race at all.

If that finding is accurate and generally applicable, then we as a society have totally f***ed up in making it a taboo to mention someone’s race. We have conflated defining someone by their race with simply acknowledging their race.

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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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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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Three Scholars Worth Your Time: Part 5

7 Mar

1. Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychology professor at UC Riverside and the author of a fantastic book called The How of Happiness.  Ms. Lyubomirsky is a researcher in the burgeoning field of positive psychology, and although positive psychology has been derided by many people as a bunch of unkosher baloney, I found her book to be thoughtful, accessible, and not-baloney. She details and synthesizes the research done on happiness to date (the book came out in 2008), and uses this work to suggest, quite simply, how we can be happier. Recognizing that not everyone enjoys the same things, she offers a plethora of different methods people can try to increase their level of happiness, as well as some tips on how to figure out which ones will work for you. For instance, some people might find that meditation enhances their happiness, where others would prefer writing down three things they’re grateful for each week. Her writing style is lucid and straightforward, and the content itself is intriguing and practical without being unbearably cheesy.

I think the importance of positive psychology for the legal profession cannot be overstated. More and more research is showing that lawyers are alarmingly likely to suffer from acute depression and have other severe mental health issues, such as addiction.

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Jiujitsu Behavioral Economics: Incentivizing the Holy Grail of Efficient Breach through Liquidated Damages

24 Feb

Dear legal doctrine, Please untie me! Best, efficient breach.

It is undoubtedly a familiar scene from many 1L Contracts classrooms. The Professor introduces the concept of efficient breach; specifically the notion that contracts should be engineered, through the amount of damages awarded, to incentivize breach in the name of efficiency. The proposal provokes gasps of indignation from the class, who protest that breaking a contract ‘just feels wrong’. Ah, the professor will say, you must think we’re in a morality classroom, but we’re actually in law school. Through a variety of models, based on rational actors, the professor will demonstrate that damages which encourage efficient breach, generally expectation damages, will produce overall gains in societal wealth by encouraging contracting partners to breach their contracts when it will maximize overall wealth. (The larger question of whether wealth is a value worth pursuing through legal engineering will be carefully delineated as a separate question.) The professor may support his case with a quotation from the Restatement of Contracts, which empahsizes that breaking a contract is a morally neutral event. The professor may contrast expectation damages against the problematic concept of liquidated damages. Liquidated damages specify, in advance, the amount that a contracting partner must pay if they breach a contract. Liquidated damages clauses, especially those that seem punitive, are often not enforced by courts. A professor may demonstrate that liquidated damages clauses might deter efficient breach and therefore are economically unjustified. The students, standing in awe before the sacred models, are generally cowed into silence. They’ve learned an important lesson about attempting to apply their moral intuitions to economic analysis of legal doctrines. But is the professor actually right? Continue reading

Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict

21 Feb

Emily Pronin

In their chapter, Bias Perception and the Spiral of Conflict, Kathleen Kennedy and Emily Pronin examine what they see as a major cause of breakdowns in negotiation, both small- and large-scale: a tendency of each side to view the other side’s position as biased and preference-driven (rather than based on objective facts).  Kennedy and Pronin explain that we tend to see signs of bias all around us – some even posit that United States Supreme Court justices fall short of impartiality in their decisions.  The only place, it seems, where the tendency to detect bias is weak is in ourselves: people have a tendency to perceive others as susceptible to the influence of biases while at the same time viewing themselves as relatively unaffected by those biases.  That asymmetry has been referred to as a bias blind spot.  One example of this bias blind spot with particular relevance to those of us in law school is the widespread disagreement over the validity of high-stakes standardized tests, such as the LSAT.  High performers are inclined to resent the “obvious bias” of poor performers who claim that the test is invalid and should not be used; poor performers, by contrast, are inclined to resent the “obvious bias” of high performers who champion the tests’ use.

Kathleen Kennedy

The first component of Kennedy and Pronin’s bias-perception conflict spiral is that disagreement leads to an even stronger perception that the other side is biased.   That is, when people disagree, they view those with whom they disagree as biased or, more specifically, as unable or unwilling to view things as they are in “objective reality.”  The reason is clear: “people generally have complete faith in the veridicality of their perceptions, and thus are suspicious of those who fail to share their perceptions.”   Kennedy and Pronin offer support for this component with a review of several experimental and real-world cases of the tendency to perceive bias in action, including an experiment conducted among partisans involved in the struggle between Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland, in the wake of the “Good Friday Agreement” that established the conditions for peace in that region.  Consistent with their hypothesis, partisans in the conflict tended to feel that those who led the opposing side were more prone to these biases than were those who led their own side.

Read about the second component and some applications of the model after the jump.

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Everyone is the Hero of Their Own Story

19 Feb

Everyone is the hero of their own story, even if they don't actually wear a cape and tights.

It is a generally accepted proposition that reasonable people can disagree. At the same time, when we disagree with someone, we usually think that they are wrong. How on earth does that work? That is, how can we reconcile our belief that someone may be just as reasonable as we are, but wrong whenever he or she disagrees with us? Does it require us to have some implicit notion of infallibility? Or the conviction that the other person is usually reasonable, but in this case is just being crazy?

In my earlier post on system justification theory, I mentioned how people have a psychological need to think well of themselves and the people they associate with, what psychologists call ego justification and group justification, respectively. I also talked about how this can lead to cognitive dissonance when our beliefs diverge from our experience. But when it comes to beliefs about beliefs, we seem to lack any kind of reality check, so to speak, as long as we can find a sufficient number of people who agree with us. In other words, if I believe abortion is wrong, there is no thing in the real world that I can point to, as an empirical matter, to either confirm or deny my belief. Ethics just doesn’t work that way.

More on why I’m always right, after the jump. Continue reading

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