The law is based on reasoned analysis, devoid of ideological biases or unconscious influences. Judges frame their decisions as straightforward applications of an established set of legal doctrines, principles, and mandates to a given set of facts. Or so we think.
As the Supreme Court debates President Barack Obama’s landmark health care law — sometimes dubbed ObamaCare — it’s important to remember that unreasoned, impartial law is largely an illusion. As far back as 1881, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote that “the felt necessities of the time, the prevalent moral and political theories, intuitions of public policy, avowed or unconscious, even the prejudices which judges share with their fellow-men, have a good deal more to do than the syllogism in determining the rules by which men should be governed.”
We sat down with Director of the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School (PLMS) and editor of Ideology, Psychology, and Law, Professor Jon Hanson, to discuss the interaction of psychology and the law, and how they form ideologies by which we all must live.
What sparked your interest in the study of mind sciences and the law?
My interest has evolved through several stages. Although I studied economics in college, I did so with special interest in health care policy, where the life-and-death decisions have little in common with the consumption choices imagined in neoclassical economics. Purchasing an appendectomy through insurance has little in common with buying a fruit at the market.
After college, I spent a year studying the provision of neonatal intensive care in Britain’s National Health Service, attending weekly rounds with neonatologists at London hospitals, meeting with pediatricians in rural English hospitals, interviewing nurses who were providing daily care for the infants, some of whom were not viable, and speaking with parents about the profound challenges they were confronting. Those experiences strengthened my doubts regarding the real-world relevance of basic economic models for certain types of decisions.
In law school, I studied law and economics, but tended to focus on informational problems and externalities that had been given short shrift by some legal economists at the time. After attending a talk by, and then meeting with, the late Amos Tversky, I became an early fan of the nascent behavioral economics movement.
It wasn’t, however, until I spent a couple of years immersed in cigarette-industry documents in the early and mid 1990s that I felt the need to make a clean break from the law’s implied psychological models and to turn the mind sciences for a more realistic alternative.
What was it about the cigarette documents that had that effect?
Well, they made clear that the tobacco industry articulated two views of their consumers – an inaccurate public portrayal, and a more accurate private view.
The first, which the industry conveyed to their consumers and to lawmakers, was of smokers who are independent, rational, and deliberate. Smokers smoke cigarettes because they choose to, because smoking makes them happier, even considering the risks. The industry thus gave consumers a flattering view of themselves as autonomous, liberated actors while assuring would-be regulators that there was no need to be concerned about the harmful consequences of smoking. Smokers were, after all, just getting what they wanted.
The second view of the consumer, which was evident in the industry’s internal documents, was of consumers as irrational, malleable, and manipulable. The industry’s confidential marketing strategy documents, for instance, made clear that the manufacturers theorized and experimented to discover how to target, persuade, lure, and chemically hook young consumers to take up and maintain the smoking habit. That internal understanding of consumers had noAdd a Comment