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Category: Psychology and Behavior


Cyberbullying and the Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys

(This post is based on a talk I gave at the Seton Hall Legislative Journal’s symposium on Bullying and the Social Media Generation. Many thanks to Frank Pasquale, Marisa Hourdajian, and Michelle Newton for the invitation, and to Jane Yakowitz and Will Creeley for a great discussion!)


New Jersey enacted the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABBR) in 2011, in part as a response to the tragic suicide of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University. It is routinely lauded as the country’s broadest, most inclusive, and strongest anti-bullying law. That is not entirely a compliment. In this post, I make two core claims. First, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights has several aspects that are problematic from a First Amendment perspective – in particular, the overbreadth of its definition of prohibited conduct, the enforcement discretion afforded school personnel, and the risk of impingement upon religious and political freedoms. I argue that the legislation departs from established precedent on disruptions of the educational environment by regulating horizontal relations between students rather than vertical relations between students and the school as an institution / environment. Second, I believe we should be cautious about statutory regimes that enable government actors to sanction speech based on content. I suggest that it is difficult to distinguish, on a principled basis, between bullying (which is bad) and social sanctions that enforce norms (which are good). Moreover, anti-bullying laws risk displacing effective informal measures that emerge from peer production. Read More


LTAAA Symposium: Response to Surden on Artificial Agents’ Cognitive Capacities

I want to thank Harry Surden for his rich, technically-informed response  to A Legal Theory for Autonomous Artificial Agents, and importantly, for seizing on an important distinction we make early in the book when we say:

There are two views of the goals of artificial intelligence. From an engineering perspective, as Marvin Minsky noted, it is the “science of making machines do things that would require intelligence if done by men” (Minsky 1969, v). From a cognitive science perspective, it is to design and build systems that work the way the human mind does (Shanahan 1997, xix). In the former perspective, artificial intelligence is deemed successful along a performative dimension; in the latter, along a theoretical one. The latter embodies Giambattista Vico’s perspective of verum et factum convertuntur, “the true and the made are…convertible” (Vico 2000); in such a view, artificial intelligence would be reckoned the laboratory that validates our best science of the human mind. This perspective sometimes shades into the claim artificial intelligence’s success lies in the replication of human capacities such as emotions, the sensations of taste and self-consciousness. Here, artificial intelligence is conceived of as building artificial persons, not just designing systems that are “intelligent.”

The latter conception of AI as being committed to building ‘artificial persons’ is what, it is pretty clear, causes much of the angst that LTAAA’s claims seem to occasion. And even though I have sought to separate the notion of ‘person’ from ‘legal persons’ it seems that some conflation has continued to occur in our discussions thus far.

I’ve personally never understood why artificial intelligence was taken to be, or ever took itself to be, dedicated to the task of replicating human capacities, faithfully attempting to build “artificial persons” or “artificial humans”. This always seemed such like a boring, pointlessly limited task. Sure, the pursuit of cognitive science is entirely justified; the greater the understanding we have of our own minds, the better we will be able to understand our place in nature. But as for replicating and mimicking them faithfully: Why bother with the ersatz when we have the real? We already have a perfectly good way to make humans or persons and it is way more fun than doing mechanical engineering or writing code. The real action, it seems to me, lay in the business of seeing how we could replicate our so-called intellectual capacities without particular regard for the method of implementation; if the best method of implementation happened to be one that mapped on well to what seemed like the human mind’s way of doing it, then that would be an added bonus. The multiple-realizability of our supposedly unique cognitive abilities would do wonders to displace our sense of uniqueness, acknowledge the possibility of other modes of existence, and re-invoke the sense of wonder about the elaborate tales we tell ourselves about our intentionality, consciousness, autonomy or freedom of will.

Having said this, I can now turn to responding to Harry’s excellent post.
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Neuroscience at Trial: Society for Neuroethics Convenes Panel of Front-Line Practitioners

Is psychopathy a birth defect that should exclude a convicted serial killer and rapist from the death penalty?  Are the results of fMRI lie-detection tests reliable enough to be admitted in court? And if a giant brain tumor suddenly turns a law-abiding professional into a hypersexual who indiscriminately solicits females from ages 8 to 80, is he criminally responsible for his conduct?  These were the questions on the table when the International Neuroethics Society convened a fascinating panel last week at the Carnegie Institution for Science last week on the uses of neuroscience evidence in criminal and civil trials.

Moderated and organized by Hank Greely of Stanford Law School, the panel brought together:

  • Steven Greenberg, whose efforts to introduce neuroscience on psychopathic disorder (psychopathy) in capital sentencing in Illinois of Brian Dugan has garnered attention from Nature to The Chicago Tribune;
  • Houston Gordon (an old-school trial attorney successful enough not to need his own website, hence no hyperlink), who has made the most assertive arguments so far to admit fMRI lie-detection evidence in a civil case, United States v. Semrau, and
  • Russell Swerdlow, a research and clinical professor of neurology (and three other sciences!).  Swerdlow’s brilliant diagnostic work detected the tumor in the newly-hypersexual patient, whom others had dismissed as a creep and a criminal.


In three upcoming short posts, I will feature the comments of each of these panelists and present for you, dear reader, some of the thornier issues raised by their talks.  These cases have been reported on in publications ranging from the Archives of Neurology to USA Today, but Concurring Opinions brings to you, direct and uncensored, the statements of the lawyers and scientists who made these cases happen … Can I say “stay tuned” on a blog?


Our Fractured Age

The disconnect between what seem to the common interests and needs of most of us – now the 99% of us – and how we think about ourselves collectively has fascinated and troubled me for quite some time. Daniel T. Rodgers, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton, has recently published a very interesting book entitled, “Age of Fracture,” that explores the intellectual basis for that disconnect. Looking at a broad set of social, economic, philosophical and political intellectual traditions, Rodgers explains how the intellectual underpinnings of our thought processes have shifted from the idea of collective identity to one of individualized freedom, but freedom from reality.  Reviewing the intellectual history of the late twentieth century until now, his analysis crosses the left-right divide to show how all of these different disciplines can by synthesized because they all vector in the same direction, this idealized sense of individual freedom.

Rodgers starts by describing the political rhetoric Presidents have used in their speeches. Presidential speechwriters rely on tropes that resonate because that rhetoric helps bolster Presidential leadership: The better the rhetoric connects to the prevailing mindsets of the people, the more effective the “bully pulpit.” Presidential rhetoric has interested me ever since I read Gary Wills’ Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.” In essence, Wills analyzed President Lincoln’s use of rhetoric to show that it both reflected but helped reify a change in the concept of the nature of our country: Our  concept of American changed from, “The United States are . . .” to, “The United States is.” Rather than going back that far, Rodgers begins with the rhetoric of our Cold War era Presidents – for example, Kennedy’s “Ask not what this country can do for you; ask what you can do for this country” – calling us to gird our loins and stand united to advance our collective national interest in order to better confront the menace we faced by the menace of Communis and the Soviet Union. With the ending of the Cold War, President Reagan’s rhetoric moved away from that sense of collective identity and obligation toward an idealized, almost dream-like, sense of individual “freedom,” including freedom from the actual conditions of our lives as well as our from much sense of collective obligation. That predominant mindset allows us to escape hard choices and to assume a perfected life will be easy to achieve. It is not as if a Reagan’s rhetoric by itself caused the shift. Rather, presidential rhetoric both reflects but also amplifies the ideas that are already settling into our unexamined background mindset.

Having launched this project through the lens of presidential rhetoric, Rodgers then looks at developments across a wide swath of our intellectual life. He starts with economic theory and describes how the earlier macroeconomic Keynesian theory was supplanted – he quotes economist Robert Lucas, “The term ‘macroeconomics’ will simply disappear from use” — by microeconomic theory, the idealized world of individual rational actors motivated solely to maximize their profits. While he shows how disconnected this was from reality, Rodgers fits microeconomic theory within the broader conceptual view of the world of the individualized but unreal “freedom” reflected in President Reagan’s speeches. Rodger’s next chapter moves to politics and political theory. He traces the shift from Galbraith’s earlier view that the overwhelming  economic power of megacorporations gave them extraordinary political power to the microeconomic view that disconnects economic from political power by its focus on individual economic actors focused solely on their own economic agendas. In an interesting take, Rodgers shows how political theory moved toward rational choice analysis with its exclusive focus on the “power-seeking saturated world of politics” means that the problems of our powerless subordinated groups slip “out of the categories of analysis.” In a tour de force, he then describes how the divergent views of Gramsci, Genovese, Geertz and Foucault, nevertheless when taken together, conceptualize power as dispersed extremely broadly in “spheres of culture, ideas, everyday practices [and] science.” In sum, if microeconomic theory is all about individual economic gain disconnected from politics, political gain is all about special interest “rent seeking” divorce from collective needs and power is defined so broadly that it is so diffused as to exists everywhere, Rodgers asks whether power is in fact “nothing at all.” If power is nothing at all for us, that leaves most of us collectively powerless. Read More

No More Secret Dossiers: We Need Full FTC or CFPB Investigation of “Fourth Bureau” Reputation Intermediaries

There is a superb article by Ylan Q. Mui on the growth of new firms that create consumer reputations. They operate outside the traditional regulation of the three major credit bureaus. Mui calls this shadowy world of reputational intermediaries the “fourth bureau.” The Federal Trade Commission should conduct an immediate investigation of the “black box” practices described by an industry leader in the article. This should be part of a larger political and social movement to stop the collection of “secret dossiers” about individuals by corporate entities. The Murdoch scandal now unraveling in Britain is only the most extreme example of a wholesale assault on privacy led by unscrupulous data collectors.

Once a critical mass of data about a person has been collected for a commercial purpose, she deserves to know what the data is and who is gathering it. Once an educator, employer, landlord, banker, or insurer makes a decision based on that data, the affected individual should be able to challenge and correct it. I have made a preliminary case for such reforms in my chapter Reputation Regulation, in this book. I now think this agenda is more urgent than ever, given the creeping spread of unaccountable data mining in the internet sector to a wild west of reputational intermediaries.

From a Fair Credit Reporting Act to a Fair Reputation Reporting Act

To understand why, it’s helpful to take a step back and look at how poorly regulated even the established credit bureaus are. As Shawn Fremstad and Amy Traub have noted in the Demos report Discrediting America, ample empirical evidence has confirmed that a vast number of traditional credit bureau files are erroneous:
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The Price of Law School Cost Transparency

Higher-education cost transparency is all the rage.  In a recent article in Slate, Annie Lowery argued that:

“It is true that we have tremendous amounts of data about higher education. But it is also true that too often students end up misled, overwhelmed, or confused attempting to gauge the different options. Big, expensive purchases require smart, educated customers. That is why the government created the new fuel-efficiency labels. It is also why the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is rolling out simplified, standardized home-mortgage forms. It should not, after all, take a Ph.D. in statistics to get through the college application process.”

This intuition drives politicians like Sen. Boxer to attack the ABA for failing to push law schools to disclose more data, and to crowd-sourced work like Law School Transparency.

In general, I absolutely think that law schools ought to compete on the transparency of their disclosures about student job outcomes, and that the ABA’s highest and best accreditation purpose would be to audit such data for its accuracy.  However, I thought I’d caution proponents of cost transparency of two specific & unanticipated costs of their proposals.

First, think about what cost transparency entails.  To my mind, real law school cost transparency doesn’t mean that we on a clear form provide prospective students a series of blanks: ”tuition + anticipated tuition growth” plus “living costs +  anticipated cost increases” minus “expected three-year scholarship”.  We’d also need to disclose our predictions of the student’s chances on the summer job market law school cost is for some students significantly defrayed by summer employment.  If you look nationally, graduating law student debt has spiked in the last two years.  That rise doesn’t follow largely from tuition increases, though that’s part of the story.  Rather, it’s the collapse of the firm job market in 2008 -2010 that did the trick: students lost $10-$30,000 of expected income that would have offset or repaid borrowing.

The problem is that although law schools could get a handle on some of these numbers, disclosing them in a way that’s going to meet students’ ever-rising expectations isn’t exactly an easy task.  Think about the average administrator in charge of this disclosure — how likely is it that they will be able to do so in a way that meets Lowery’s standard of clarity, accuracy, and replication? Even when they are excellent at their job today, this kind of data-organization and display task would demand a fundamentally new set of skills.   Bringing in a new body is a fine idea, although many law schools are operating under hiring freezes to control tuition growth. Moreover, as Gordon Smith observed some years ago with reference to curricular change, legal education reformers often discount opportunity costs severely.  So if law schools spend more time on figuring out the expected costs of law school education, they are going to spend less time on something else.  (And, likely, less money.)  What’s that to be?  My guess is: library resources, clinics, and research support.  Maybe that’s a worthwhile trade-off, but it strikes me that discussions of cost transparency are really just proxies for complaints about cost, period.  Real law school cost will fall if and when the legal job market recovers.

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UCLA Law Review Vol. 58, Issue 3 (February 2011)

Volume 58, Issue 3 (February 2011)


Good Faith and Law Evasion Samuel W. Buell 611
Making Sovereigns Indispensable: Pimentel and the Evolution of Rule 19 Katherine Florey 667
The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences Jennifer L. Mnookin et al. 725
Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences Joseph P. Bono 781
Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences Judge Nancy Gertner 789
Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences Pierre Margot 795


What’s Your Position? Amending the Bankruptcy Disclosure Rules to Keep Pace With Financial Innovation Samuel M. Kidder 803
Defendant Class Actions and Patent Infringement Litigation Matthew K. K. Sumida 843


Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction

The partisanship and bad faith of judges who disagree with us has never been more obvious, or more pernicious. For many, the most irritating personality flaw of judicial politicos (and their fellow-travelers) isn’t the bottom-line results of the opinions themselves, it is that judges refuse to acknowledge their own biases, though it’s evident that they aren’t neutral umpires, but rather players in the game.  Indeed, almost every decision you read about these days comes accompanied by a reference  to the political party of the appointing President – as if you needed the help!  As Orin Kerr has brilliantly pointed out, “people who disagree with me are just arguing in bad faith.”

For the Cultural Cognition Project, the way that we talk about legal decisions – and decisionmakers – is a subject of study and concern.  We decided to take a careful look at this topic — which we’ve previously touched on in work like Whose Eyes Are You Going To Believe. Our motivation was to investigate how constitutional norms requiring neutrality in fact finding interact with individuals’ tendencies to perceive facts and risks in ways congenial to their group identities.  Building on Hastorf/Cantril’s social psychology classic, They Saw a Game: A Case Study, we’ve written a new piece about how motivated cognition can de-stabilize constitutional doctrine, render legal fact-finders blind to their own biases, and inflame the culture wars. Our resulting paper, “They Saw a Protest”: Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction, results from my collaboration with Dan Kahan, Don Braman, Danieli Evans, and Jeff Rachlinski.  The paper is just up on SSRN, and I figured to jump-start the conversation by using this post to talk about our experimental approach and findings.  (I think that Kahan is blogging on Balkinization later in the week about the normative upshot of Protest.)

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The Representation Debate Continues

Jim Greiner and Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak have emailed me a reply to the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau’s comment on What Difference Representation. Since the topic has been the subject of several posts here, as well as some off-line communication from interested readers, I figured that I owed Greiner/Pattanayak a public space for reply.  It consists of a bit of introductory text, and a longer (9-page) paper.

“We recently became aware that HLAB President Rachel Lauter and HLAB Faculty Director David Grossman had written an email to the clinical listserve addressing our paper “What Difference Representation?”.  The email has been posted to various locations in the blogosphere.  Because the email expresses criticisms of the paper that we also have received from one or two other sources, we thought we would take the opportunity the email presented to clarify certain issues.  For example, President Lautner and Professor Grossman echo reactions we have received from another legal aid provider when they say that our study produced “only limited information,” and that more (and more useful) information would be available if we would just analyze the data properly.  We explain here that the analysis the email (and one or two other legal services providers) have advocated is statistically invalid, and that in any event the data required for it do not presently exist and cannot at this time be ethically collected.  As ought to be clear by now, we have the greatest respect for the students of HLAB, including President Lautner, and HLAB’s clinical faculty, including Professor Grossman.  We are using President Lautner and Professor Grossman’s email as a convenient foil representative of a few other comments we have received.

The substance of our response can be captured in the answers to two questions.

1.  Why study the effect of offers of HLAB representation?  All agree that the effect of actual use of representation is interesting, although as we will explain, perhaps less so than one might think at first.  But why study the effect of HLAB offers?

2.  Why not compare those who got offers from any source, not just HLAB, to those who did not get any such offers?}  This is what President Lauter, Professor Grossman, and a few others have suggested.  Why not make this comparison?

We also answer one final question:

3.  So how can we find out about the effect of offers from other service providers?”

To read the full response, click here.


Root Root Root for the Home Team.

Fangraphs has a figure that (for those who care about sabermetrics) tells quite a tale.  As the picture to the right, and associated analyses, makes clear, fans of a team generally project that the individual players will perform better than they actually do.  Overall, the community of fans was “in the middle of the pack compared to other projection systems,”  and so the result isn’t simply a function of noise or foolishness.  This finding is a nice observational data correlate of a very old & famous social psychology experiment – They Saw a Game: A Case Study, by Hastorf and Cantril.  In that experiment, observers’ experience of the refereeing of a game was biased by their fandom — we see fouls when the other team commits them.

It would be interesting to see if baseball professionals – scouts, GMS, etc. – exhibit the same effect.  That kind of motivated reasoning isn’t exactly the premise of Moneyball – which argued that teams were blinded by tools, not self-serving bias.  But it provides an alternative explanation for why teams overpay to retain their own players — they believe they will do better than the market does. This analysis, of course, can be extended to firms at large.  Though many analyses of executive compensation focus on managerial capture, there’s another story: the owners and directors of the firm are fans, and consequently mispredict its future.

Of course, none of this analysis at all explains why the Washington Nationals overpaid for Jayson Werth.  Or why Cliff Lee rejected two higher offers to live in Center City Philadelphia.  Some results are just magical.