Category: Law and Psychology


Boastful Contract Lawsuit Is Dismissed

Joke_AlertI’ve  posted on a lawsuit out of Texas, in which a law student plaintiff sued a lawyer defendant for failing to live up to a “promise” to pay $1,000,000 to any television viewer who could prove him wrong about his theory of a case.  I opined the case was a classic example of puffery, unlikely to reach the merits on that ground.   I challenged readers to prove me wrong.

Louis K. Bonham, counsel to the defendant, has done so.  He reports that the case has now been dismissed – but for want of personal jurisdiction.  According to the docket, Judge Miller’s decision issued on October 23.  It rests on the observation that the only contact that the defendant had with Texas was the airing of a television broadcast: personal jurisdiction on these grounds would make him subject to national jurisdiction where it wasn’t otherwise anticipated.

Incidentally, the underlying motion documents suggest that plaintiff’s claim was even weaker on the merits than I’d argued, as the unedited transcript of of the boast is different than the version in the complaint.  Here’s what plaintiff asserted was said:

NBC’s Ann Curry asked whether there was enough time for [Mason’s client] to commit [a crime]. An unidentified person said, “The defense says no.”

“I challenge anybody to show me,” Mason said. “I’ll pay them a million dollars if they can do it.”

But here’s what was actually said:

… And from there to be on the videotape in 28 minutes. Not possible. Not possible. I challenge anybody to show me, and guess what? Did they bring in any evidence to say that somebody made that route, did so? State’s burden of proof. If they can do it, I’ll challenge ‘em. I’ll pay them a million dollars if they can do it.

NBC Transcript, p. 3

This kind of qualifying language makes it even more obvious that the statement was a mere puff. Congrats to Mr. Bonham on his win!


A Breach Born Every Minute

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In the Spring, I asked you folks for some help thinking of examples of true Holmesian agreements, “contracts which, when breached, have a similar psychological profile to a speeding ticket.”  It turned out to be pretty hard to identify such agreements, since most people believe breach to be a morally wrongful activity – not simply an option to pay damages at will.  As Jonathan Baron and Tess Wilkinson-Ryan previously have found, the degree to which individuals find breach to be “bad” is quite manipulable:  breaches to gain are worse than breaches to avoid loss, liquidated damages ameliorate feelings of reprehensibility, etc.  Missing from this research has been a psychological theory of what makes breach so aversive.

Tess and I came up with a working hypothesis: breach is seen as a form of interpersonal exploitation that makes the breachee a sucker.  We’ve put together a paper that reports on a series of experiments supporting this hypothesis, titled (naturally) “Breach Is For Suckers.”  Check out the abstract, after the jump.

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The Law Gives Up on Beatty Chadwick

Beatty Chadwick, Post Release

Beatty Chadwick, Post Release

Two years ago, I noted that H. Beatty Chadwick was about to spend his thirteenth year in a Pennsylvania jail for civil contempt, arising out of his failure to comply with a 1995 order to turn over assets in a divorce litigation.  I opined that:

Unless circumstances change, Chadwick will die in jail to preserve an idea: even civil law must be obeyed. As Robert Cover wrote, “Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death.”

So, I guess that Cover needs to be footnoted: “Except when judges blink.”  Beatty is out.  And his jailers are celebrating:

About 35 prison staffers gathered yesterday – some crying and hugging Chadwick – to say goodbye to the “model inmate” who had worked in the law library and forged friendships with everyone from guards to senior administrators, said prison Superintendent John Reilly.

“He’s done more time than maybe the majority of people convicted of homicide do,” said Reilly, a former prosecutor. “What person in his right mind is going to flaunt the authority of the court and say, ‘I’m going to spend the rest of my life in jail?’ People just aren’t made that way.”

Maybe so, but that claim seems to be another example of how we routinely ignore the tremendous emotional investment people have in being vindicated by courts.  As far as I can tell, the state courts of Pennsylvania have not abandoned their factual finding that Chadwick had the money and refused to comply with their order. They’ve just concluded that his ornery will would never bow to any legal pressure.

But just because the judges of Delaware County gave up on compliance doesn’t mean that Chadwick has paid his debt to the courts, his ex-wife, or society at large.  His conduct (as alleged) created a social harm which his ultimate freedom only made worse.  As the  attorney for Chadwick’s ex-wife pointed out, “[h]ere’s a guy who thumbed his nose at a court order for 14 years … There should be some kind of sanctions for doing that.”


It Wasn’t Me

Thanks so much to Dan, Danielle, and the Concurring Opinions crew for this invitation. This is all pretty new to me, but I am looking forward to a fun and interesting month.

In describing the job of law professor, Stuart Benjamin ( once told me that “We teach for free and grade for money.” I’m sure it is not his originally, but it’s particularly fitting for this time of year as we face exam and paper piles of various heights and teeters begging our attention. As someone who spent a few years in a PhD program, this feels to me a bit like being a pledge for life—to borrow a phrase from fraternity culture. I spent all those years grading blue books for others’ classes with the promise that some bright-eyed hopeful would someday clean up my messes only to enter law teaching, where we carry our own water. Hard to sigh too hard, of course, but the fact remains that few of us love grading.

It was while putting off grading that I read this interesting and timely article by Paul Bloom in The Atlantic Monthly, cum “The Atlantic,” on models of the self. Anyone with even a moderately complicated internal life is familiar with the subjective phenomenon of wars in our heads between competing goals and desires. Be it a battle between Dionysus and Apollo or André Soltner and Jenny Craig, we all experience the competing pulls of devils and angels, and so it is with grading. I should really grade ten more exams, but I want to see Virginia in the . . . no wait, Virginia wasn’t even Bowl eligible . . . but there are games on, and I’ll have plenty of time to grade once the dust settles from the holidays.

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The Frame’s The Thing: Rioting or Celebration?

10292001fan13.jpgAfter the Phillies won last night, I went out to Broad Street with tens of thousands of my fellow Philadelphians to celebrate. I felt happy, but in a vaguely distanced way, stunned as I was by the unexpected reality of a major sports team championship in Philly. Because Philadelphia is such a small place (in some ways) I saw three students on the street in fairly quick order. Good times.

As I watched the celebration gather steam (fireworks! champagne! mosh pits!) I thought back to a post I’d written about watching Naples soccer fans celebrate a soccer victory back in ’07.

Apparently, Naples tied with Genova in a soccer match, resulting in both teams being promoted to Series A soccer, or the major league. This led to a general “celebration” consisting of an impromptu “parade” of thousands of mopeds and cars, flags flying and horns blaring, with the occasional firework (or pistol?) thrown into the mix. I expressed some doubt then and now about the celebratory atmosphere not just because there were some random acts of violence against Genovese fans, but because the scene was decidedly chaotic. I also question whether a parade can occur simultaneously on every main street in town.

Here, again, the naive foreign tourist might think to himself that the law had broken down, resulting in a potentially bad situation, a view itself reinforced by a Napolese citizens who told that tourist that it was “very dangerous” to walk to the train station. But a more realistic analysis demonstrated that so long as that tourist walked at a brisk pace while shouting “Forza Napoli” at intervals, he could effectively comply with the new set of norms and not be sanctioned by passing celebrants. Plus, I hailed a cab halfway through the walk.

This post was accurate, except that “brisk walk” really needs to be re-written as “a terrified shambling run, dragging luggage behind”. I remember thinking, while shambling, that if this were only happening in Philadelphia I wouldn’t be scared, because I would have a better situation sense of what was appropriate celebration and what was rioting. That is, a “riot” is a subjective thing, determined by your own contextual and culturally-determined view of what kind of public behavior is ok. I don’t speak Italian well enough to know what happy screams sound like, and without a nuanced sense of language, smiles start to look like the prelude to a mugging.

This is a long way of saying that while fireworks, smashing bottles, and random people screaming in Naples made me fear for my life, those same activities on Broad Street last night only made me feel closer to my fellow celebrants. I was right: when you are home, raucous celebrations feel entirely appropriate.

That said, it is true that I left the party around 11:30, before a night’s work of drinking kicked in and the scene turned a bit more ugly. (A few upturned cars, some smashed windows, but no reported serious injuries. (Cf. Boston).

(Image Source: Chris Bowers)

The Truth about Multitasking

I’ve been of two minds about multitasking for some time. But growing evidence is suggesting that the very concept is a myth:

Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and has written a book with the self-explanatory title CrazyBusy, has been offering therapies to combat extreme multitasking for years; in his book he calls multitasking a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” In a 2005 article, he described a new condition, “Attention Deficit Trait,” which he claims is rampant in the business world. ADT is “purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live,” writes Hallowell, and its hallmark symptoms mimic those of ADD. “Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points,” Hallowell argues, and this challenge “can be controlled only by creatively engineering one’s environment and one’s emotional and physical health.” Limiting multitasking is essential.

Walter Kirn concurs: “Neuroscience is confirming what we all suspect: Multitasking is dumbing us down and driving us crazy.”

Still, I think it all depends on the complexity of the secondary task. If I’m on a long phone call, I’m going to start checking my sage reader or Bookforum for interesting articles. Most TV shows take up very little “bandwidth;” it would seem a shame not to fold clothes or clean or cook during them. Perhaps it’s time for Birdthistlian sample of views on the matter.


Neuroeconomics and Innovation

web-version.jpgI’m in LA for the next few days, at the Law, Economics and Neuroscience Conference: Implications for Innovation, sponsored by The Southern California Innovation Project, Theoretical Research in Neuroeconomic Decision-making (TREND) and The Center for Communication Law & Policy. As the press-release says, the idea is to bring together neuroscience researchers, economists, and ordinary law professors and see if the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

[Gillian] Hadfield [who is organizing the conference on the law side] hopes the symposium will lead to more collaboration among scholars who may appear to have very different goals and backgrounds.

“You don’t usually find scientists, economists and lawyers talking together about the same topic,” Hadfield said. “I think people will find that we can enrich the research agenda of all these disciplines with this kind of cross pollination.”

I hope to blog the conference, or at least my parts in in, over the next few days. I’ll be commenting on Mat McCubbins’ co-authored paper, The Effect of Institutions on Behavior and Brain Activity: Insights from EEGs and Timed-Response Experiments. In the paper, on Boudreau, Coulson, and McCubbins found that identical cooperative behavior in a trust game seems to arise from distinct neurological mechanisms, depending on whether trust in others arose from incentives or penalties. After the session tomorrow I’ll post some of my comments, which intend to connect this paper to the large law review literature on trust.


Why Aren’t Prices Rounded Off?

120px-Gas_prices,_July_2006,_San_Francisco,_California_01.jpgFrom the blog “We’re Only Human” (which I’ve just discovered, but which seems great):

University of Florida psychologists Chris Janiszewski and Dan Uy suspected that something fundamental might be going on, that some characteristic of the opening bid itself might influence the way the brain thinks about value and shapes bidding behavior. In particular, they wanted to see if the precision of the opening bid might be important to how the brain acts at an auction. Or to put it in more familiar terms: Are we really fooled when storekeepers price something at $19.95 instead of a round twenty bucks?

Janiszewski and Uy ran a series of experiments to test this idea. The experiments used hypothetical scenarios, in which participants were required to make a variety of “educated guesses.” For example, they had participants think about a scenario in which they are buying a high-definition plasma TV, and asked them to guesstimate the wholesale cost. They were told the retail price, plus the fact that the retailer had a reputation for pricing TVs competitively.

But there were three scenarios involving three retail prices: Some hypothetical buyers were given a price of $5000, while others were given the price of $4988 and still others $5012. When all the buyers were asked to estimate the wholesale price, those with the $5000 price tag in their heads guessed much lower than those contemplating the more precise retail prices. That is, they moved farther away from the mental anchor. What’s more, those who started with the round number as their mental anchor were much more likely to guess a wholesale price that was also in round numbers. The scientists ran this experiment again and again with different scenarios, and always got the same result.

Why would this happen?

Read the post to find out!


The Future of Sensory Jurisprudence

eye.jpg[This post continues the debate about Whose Eyes are You Going To Believe, the draft paper Dan Kahan, Don Braman and I have recently begun to circulate. For previous installments, see posts on Balkin, CoOp, Volokh (Kerr), and CoOp (our reply).]

As I hope we’ve made clear, our ultimate claim is not (cf. Kerr) that “Justice Scalia was privileging a conservative white male view” of Scott, but that judges need to be generally mindful of the possibility that their views of facts, and factual dissensus, are as culturally contingent as the public more generally. Thus, we argue for rhetorical humbleness, and for deciding cases on grounds other than a holding that no reasonable juror could see the facts in a certain way. It’s a modest response to the large problem of cognitive illiberalism in legal decision making.

In this post, I’m going to make a bigger claim, one which isn’t so much based on the paper or my co-authors’ views, but is instead just the kind of irresponsible extension of the data that blogging encourages. In short: it’s my view that Scott is a harbinger of a whole mess of cases on the near horizon: a sensory jurisprudence enabled by a total surveillance society.

Total surveillance as a concept is one well-explored by other authors on this blog. But even in Dan Solove’s well-known post – and subsequent highly downloaded article – about the “I’ve nothing to hide” problem, the doctrinal consequences of total surveillance were virtually ignored. And by doctrinal, I do not mean the privacy law consequences: I mean the likelihood that as surveillance becomes omnipresent in most public and some private places, judges will use surveillance evidence [“SE”] in an increasing number of cases to resolve factual disputes.

This use of SE would seem to promise more accurate, efficient, and ex-post legitimate litigation outcomes. The theory would go that most litigation is driven by a dispute about the facts: SE should dispositively resolve such disputes, promoting settlement and (at worst) streamlining trials. Best of all, opinions enlisting SE would be more likely to be persuasive. Thus, if Judge Cardozo, ruling on the relative fault of the parties in, say Palsgraf, could have just embedded a video of the events instead of describing it in his beautiful but inscrutable prose, perhaps readers/viewers would have more likely to agree with him. Or in a sexual harassment case, if the workplace was totally taped, evidence of a hostile work environment would be both clearer and harder to refute. And in the case of coerced interrogations, a judge could simply embed a video, instead of describing it, and say: “look, it’s obvious!”

The connection between SE and surveillance is (ironically) made stark in a video … but to see it, you’ll need to read past the jump.

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Violent Movies and Clueless Consequentialism

Researchers have recently “proven” that “violent films prevent violent crime by attracting would-be assailants and keeping them cloistered in darkened, alcohol-free environs.” In fact, they estimate that about 52,000 less assaults occur each year because of the showing of violent movies. It’s all part of the “Super Crunchers” trend, where economists “crunch . . . numbers to evaluate matters like cheating among sumo wrestlers or the effects of a crackdown on cocaine.” Pity that the urge for “clean identification” and headline-grabbing results produces a bizarre overconfidence about the study’s extrapolability.

The key mechanism identified here is a substitution of movie-watching for more dangerous activities:

“Economics is about choice,” [one study author] said. “What would these people have done if they had not chosen to go and see a movie? Whatever they would have done would have had a greater tendency to involve alcohol. If you can incapacitate a large group of potentially violent people, that’s a good thing.”

I’ll be the first to agree that the study helps demonstrate that, say, those with a propensity for violence are less likely to go out and be violent after watching such a film. But what about the next night, or the night after that? These aggregative, atomized studies do nothing to explore the long-term psychological impact of viewing violence. As Craig A. Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University, notes,

There are hundreds of studies done by numerous research groups around the world that show that media violence exposure increases aggressive behavior. People learn from every experience in life, and that learning occurs at a very basic level of brain function.

I’d trust individualized psychological research far more than I would follow brute aggregation here. Admittedly, I’m no expert, and I can envision a plausible theory whereby viewing violence substitutes for, rather than encourages, doing violence (though I would guess the “spillover” effect of viewing is far stronger than the “compensation” effect, to use Jon Elster’s terms). I can only congratulate the recent study authors on the limited finding that people are less likely to brutalize others on the very night they watch violent films–not on giving us much insight at all on the overall cultural impact of violent films.