Category: Behavioral Law and Economics


An Irrational Undertaking: Why Aren’t We More Rational?

By unanimous reader demand – all one out of one readers voting, as of last week – this post will explore the small topic of the biological basis of “irrationality,” and its implications for law.  Specifically, Ben Daniels of Collective Conscious asked the fascinating question: “What neuro-mechanisms enforce irrational behavior in a rational animal?”

Ben’s question suggests that ostensibly rational human beings often act in irrational ways.  To prove his point, I’m actually going to address his enormous question within a blog post.  I hope you judge the effort valiant, if not complete.

The post will offer two perspectives on whether, as the question asks, we could be more rational than we are if certain “neuro-mechanisms” did not function to impair rationality.  The first view is that greater rationality might be possible – but might not confer greater benefits.  I call this the “anti-Vulcan hypothesis”:  While our affective capacities might suppress some of our computational power, they are precisely what make us both less than perfectly rational and gloriously human – Captain Kirk, rather than Mr. Spock.  A second, related perspective offered by the field of cultural cognition suggests that developmentally-acquired, neurally-ingrained cultural schemas cause people to evaluate new information not abstractly on its merits but in ways that conform to the norms of their social group.  In what I call the “sheep hypothesis,” cultural cognition theory suggests that our rational faculties often serve merely to rationalize facts in ways that fit our group-typical biases.  Yet, whether we are Kirk or Flossie, the implication for law may be the same:  Understanding how affect and rationality interact can allow legal decision-makers to modify legal institutions to favor the relevant ability, modify legal regimes to account for predictable limitations on rationality, and communicate in ways that privilege social affiliations and affective cues as much as factual information.

First, a slight cavil with the question:  The question suggests that people are “rational animal[s]” but that certain neurological mechanisms suppress rationality – as if our powerful rational engines were somehow constrained by neural cruise-control.  Latent in that question are a factual assumption about how the brain works (more on that later) and a normative inclination to see irrationality as a problem to which rationality is the solution.  Yet, much recent work on the central role of affect in decision-making suggests that, often, the converse may be true.  (Among many others, see Jonathan Haidt and Josh Greene; these links will open PDF articles in a new window.)  Rationality divorced from affect arguably may not even be possible for humans, much less desirable.  Indeed, the whole idea of “pure reason” as either a fact or a goal is taking a beating at the hands of researchers in behavioral economics, cognitive neuroscience, and experimental philosophy – and perhaps other fields as well.

Also, since “rational” can mean a lot of things, I’m going to define it as the ability to calculate which behavior under particular circumstances will yield the greatest short-term utility to the actor.  By this measure, people do irrational things all the time: we discount the future unduly, preferring a dollar today to ten dollars next month; we comically misjudge risk, shying away from the safest form of transportation (flying) in favor of the most dangerous (driving); we punish excessively; and the list goes on.

Despite these persistent and universal defects in rationality, experimental data indicates that our brains have the capacity to be more rational than our behaviors would suggest.  Apparently, certain strong affective responses interfere with activity in particular regions of the prefrontal cortex (pfc); these areas of the pfc are associated with rationality tasks like sequencing, comparing, and computing.  Experiments in which researchers use powerful magnets to temporarily “knock out” activity in limbic (affective) brain regions, the otherwise typical subjects displayed savant-like abilities in spatial, visual, and computational skills.  This experimental result mimics what anecdotally has been reported in people who display savant abilities following brain injury or disease, and in people with autism spectrum disorders, who may have severe social and affective impairments yet also be savants.

So: Some evidence suggests the human brain may have massively more computing power than we can to put to use because of general (and sometimes acute) affective interference.  It may be that social and emotional processing suck up all the bandwidth; or, prosocial faculties may suppress activity in computational regions.  Further, the rational cognition we can access can be totally swamped out by sudden and strong affect.  With a nod to Martha Nussbaum, we might call this the “fragility of rationality.”

This fragility may be more boon than bane:  Rationality may be fragile because, in many situations, leading with affect might confer a survival advantage.  Simple heuristics and “gut” feelings, which are “fast and cheap,” let us respond quickly to complex and potentially dangerous situations.  Another evolutionary argument is that all-important social relationships can be disrupted by rational utility-maximizing behaviors – whether you call them free-riders or defectors.  To prevent humans from mucking up the enormous survival-enhancing benefits of community, selection would favor prosocial neuroendocrine mechanisms that suppress or an individual’s desire to maximize short-term utility.  What’s appealing about this argument is that – if true – it means that that which enables us to be human is precisely that which makes us not purely rational.  This “anti-Vulcan” hypothesis is very much the thrust of the work by Antonio Damasio (and here), Dan Ariely, and Paul Zak, among many other notable scholars.

An arguably darker view of the relationship between prosociality and rationality comes from cultural cognition theory.  While evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics suggest that people have cognitive quirks as to certain kinds of mental tasks, cultural cognition suggests that people’s major beliefs about the state of the world – the issues that self-governance and democracy depend upon – are largely impervious to rationality.  In place of rationality, people quite unconsciously “conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact … to values that define their cultural identities.”

On this view, people aren’t just bad at understanding risk and temporal discounting, among other things, because our prosocial adaptations suppress it.  Rather, from global warming to gun control, people unconsciously align their assessments of issues to conform to the beliefs and values of their social group.  Rationality operates, if at all, post hoc:  It allows people to construct rationalizations for relatively fact-independent but socially conforming conclusions.  (Note that different cultural groups assign different values to rational forms of thought and inquiry.  In a group that highly prizes those activities, pursuing rationally-informed questioning might itself be culturally conforming.  Children of academics and knowledge-workers: I’m looking at you.)

This reflexive conformity is not a deliberate choice; it’s quite automatic, feels wholly natural, and is resilient against narrowly rational challenges based in facts and data.  And that this cognitive mode inheres in us makes a certain kind of sense:  Most people face far greater immediate danger from defying their social group than from global warming or gun control policy.  The person who strongly or regularly conflicts with their group becomes a sort of socially stateless person, the exiled persona non grata.

To descend from Olympus to the village:  What could this mean for law?  Whether we take the heuristics and biases approach emerging from behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology or the cultural cognition approach emerging from that field, the social and emotional nature of situated cognition cannot be ignored.  I’ll briefly highlight two strategies for “rationalizing” aspects of the legal system to account for our affectively-influenced rationality – one addressing the design of legal institutions and the other addressing how legal and political decisions are communicated to the public.

Oliver Goodenough suggests that research on rational-affective mutual interference should inform how legal institutions are  designed.  Legal institutions may be anywhere on a continuum from physical to metaphorical, from court buildings to court systems, to the structure and concept of the jury, to professional norms and conventions.  The structures of legal institutions influence how people within them engage in decision-making; certain institutional features may prompt people bring to bear their more emotive (empathic), social-cognitive (“sheep”), or purely rational (“Vulcan”) capacities.

Goodenough does not claim that more rationality is always better; in some legal contexts, we might collectively value affect – empathy, mercy.  In another, we might value cultural cognition – as when, for example, a jury in a criminal case must determine whether a defendant’s response to alleged provocation falls within the norms of the community.  And in still other contexts, we might value narrow rationality above all.  Understanding the triggers for our various cognitive modes could help address long-standing legal dilemmas.  Jon Hanson’s work on the highly situated and situational nature of decision-making suggests that the physical and social contexts in which deliberation takes place may be crucial to the answers at which we arrive.

Cultural cognition may offer strategies for communicating with the public about important issues.  The core insight of cultural cognition is that people react to new information not primarily by assessing it in the abstract, on its merits, but by intuiting their community’s likely reaction and conforming to it.  If the primary question a person asks herself is, “What would my community think of this thing?” instead of “What is this thing?”, then very different communication strategies follow:  Facts and information about the thing itself only become meaningful when embedded in information about the thing’s relevance to peoples’ communities.  The cultural cognition project has developed specific recommendations for communication around lawmaking involving gun rights, the death penalty, climate change, and other ostensibly fact-bound but intensely polarizing topics.

To wrap this up by going back to the question: Ben, short of putting every person into a TMS machine that makes us faux-savants by knocking out affective and social functions, we are not going to unleash our latent (narrowly) rational powers.  But it’s worth recalling that the historical, and now unpalatable term, for natural savants used to be “idiot-savant”: This phrase itself suggests that, without robust affective and social intelligence – which may make us “irrational” – we’re not very smart at all.


Blame Email Disclaimers on Judge Harmon?

The Economist has a fun blurb on email disclaimers — the ones that boldly state that the email you’ve just received creates no legal relationship, offers no advice, and generally isn’t worth the paper it isn’t printed on.  The blurb argues that such disclaimers are “are mostly, legally speaking, pointless. Lawyers and experts on internet policy say no court case has ever turned on the presence or absence of such an automatic e-mail footer in America, the most litigious of rich countries.”  Why, then, do they exist?  Because lawyers are lemmings, and “once something has become a legal habit it has a tendency to stick.”  Also, of course, the marginal cost to each sender of adding a pointless disclaimer is basically zero.

But inefficient social movements presumably need some kind of push to get off the ground, even if they fly off a cliff.  I hypothesize that Judge Harmon’s highly publicized secondary actors decision in the Enron litigation from 2002 provided the launching pad.  In that decision, as you may recall, Judge Harmon said that law firms (and accountants, and consultants) could be exposed to securities liability as a primary violator of 10b-5 if they, with requisite scienter, created a document that (when routed to the public) turned to be misleading.  I remember being in practice after that decision came out, and the firm was quite concerned to create disclaimers for all documents that went out the door to try to react to the decision’s potential scope.  Indeed, we know that one result of the decision (and others like it) was to push firms to move from general to limited partnership models.  So perhaps it also influenced email practices.

How about it?  For those of you in practice in the mid-1990s, can you reach into your archives and check for email disclaimers? If not, we’ll call my theory a winner. If so, we need to find some new explanation. [AJ Sutter, I’m talking to you.]

Grandma Got Run Over By a Voucher

The “sensible liberaltarian” blogosphere is debating the wisdom of turning Medicare into direct cash payments to seniors. I guess everyone’s forgotten about the bargaining power of a public option like Medicare vis a vis increasingly concentrated providers. And hey, why bother with the boring big picture of health industry trends when you can spin out thought experiments about brave individuals risking cancer nontreatment by buying cheap insurance? Somehow the hypotheticals never specify whether those who “prefer” cheap insurance do so to buy a few more rounds of golf at the country club, or to find a dinner more satisfying than catfood.

Kudos to Ezra Klein for explaining some kinks in the voucher concept:

Let’s run through the cash-grant world: At age 65, grandma decides to purchase no health-care plan, as she figures she’ll just get one when she gets sick, or maybe just get one next year, or perhaps she just doesn’t want to spend money extending decrepitude. But then she has a stroke and gets rushed to the hospital. Someone is paying for that emergency care. It might be the hospital. It might be the taxpayers. But it’s someone: The paramedics aren’t going to refuse to lift her onto the gurney. And then she needs rehabilitation. Someone is going to end up paying for that, too. Or perhaps she gets leukemia and, in a display of consistency, doesn’t want heroic efforts made to fight it. But are we really prepared to deny her pain meds? Or hospice?

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Randomization, Intake Systems, and Triage

Thanks to Jim and Cassandra for their carefully constructed study of the impact of an offer from the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau for representation before the Massachusetts Division of Unemployment Assistance, and to all of the participants in the symposium for their thoughtful contributions.  What Difference Representation? continues to provoke much thought, and as others have noted, will have a great impact on the access to justice debate.  I’d like to focus on the last question posed in the paper — where do we go from here? — and tie this in with questions about triage raised by Richard Zorza and questions about intake processes raised by Margaret Monsell.   The discussion below is informed by my experience as a legal service provider in the asylum system, a legal arena that the authors note is  strikingly different from the unemployment benefits appeals process described in the article.

My first point is that intake processes vary significantly between different service providers offering representation in similar and different areas of the law.  In my experience selecting cases for the asylum clinics at Georgetown and Yale, for example, we declined only cases that were frivolous, and at least some intake folks (yours truly included) preferred to select the more difficult cases, believing that high-quality student representation could make the most difference in these cases.  Surely other legal services providers select for the cases that are most likely to win, under different theories about the most effective use of resources.  WDR does not discuss which approach HLAB takes in normal practice (that is, outside the randomization study).  On page twenty, the study states that information on financial eligibility and “certain additional facts regarding the caller and the case”  are put to the vote of HLAB’s intake committee.  On what grounds does this committee vote to accept or reject a case?  In other words, does HLAB normally seek the hard cases, the more straightforward cases, some combination, or does it not take the merits into account at all?

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Mandatory (Randomized) Clinical Trials For Law Schools

Clinics Should Take Their Chances

I’m really proud that Concurring Opinions is hosting a symposium today and tomorrow on What Difference Representation.  I think the piece offers a timely and provocative thesis, and we’ve assembled a near-ideal group of folks to engage with the topic.  I look forward to seeing what the group comes up with.  A big thank you to Jaya for organizing with me, and of course to Jim and Cassandra for agreeing to hold up their work to public scrutiny.

I’ve been thinking over the last several weeks about what I could say that would be distinctive. Here’s what I came up with.  That selection makes hay of our ability to study lawyering in the wild is obvious – and Representation’s focus on the hazards of previous work in the field an important contribution.  Generally, selection–  in various guises — produce one of empirical legal studies’ true wicked problems. It shocks me how many quantitative and qualitative papers proceed as if it it were a molehill to dismiss, instead of a mountain to climb. Randomized trials promise a solution — really, the only way we can know if legal policies are having the effects that we hypothesize.

Law school clinics offer one of the few fora where randomized trials would be ethically & practically feasible.  It is true that no law school clinic experiment can fill the offer/representation gap that bedevils the paper.  But comparison across clinics might shed light on the effect of resources, client characteristics, clinic structure, and legal regime on the offer-making outcomes that the paper discusses.  (Whether you a comparison of like-clinics would enable a better estimate of the representation effect than the methods employed on pps. 39-42 is an open question.)

Given that more data would permit better resourcing decisions, should law school clinics be expected to engage in randomized trials when offering representation? My tentative answer to this question is yes. Law school clinics are subsidized by student tuition dollars (and sometimes the public too).  This doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that pedagogical clinics should refrain from zealous advocacy.  But it does suggest, I think, that their mission should be informed and guided by the values of the University: openness to criticism, the expectation that participants will produce generalizable and socially useful knowledge, and measured transparency. Those values would be served if clinics participated in randomized testing to see if, and how, they are helping the recipients of their services.  Like Abramowicz, Ayres and Listokin, I endorse randomization before determining the effect of legal policy.  To my knowledge, not one law school clinic in the country engaged in  a randomized trial before engaging in lawyering services.  Doctors no longer practice this way – lawyers shouldn’t either.

It would be much better if this participation in research occur voluntarily, without resort to our accrediting agency, or, worse, the politicized and meddling hands of various state-related funding bodies.  I think moral suasion is the best route – hence, this blog post.  We’re anticipating that many clinicians will read this symposium.  To them I pose the following challenge: why not randomize and see what effects your offers are having on client outcomes?  Maybe, in the aggregate, we’ll learn something about representation.

While you are mulling that over that modest proposal, I hope you will enjoy the rest of the symposium.


Uncompensated Torts

There’s a fantastic new article out by Rick Swedloff (Rutgers-Camden) called Uncompensated Torts.  Swedloff examines the obstacles (largely insurance-related) to victim compensation for intentional torts, and offers a sobering take on possible solutions.  The one that most interests me is an insurance mandate.  Though I take it from Swedloff’s article that these kinds of mandates are perhaps less popular than the used to be?  Anyway, the whole thing is well-worth checking out.


What Difference Representation: Introduction to the Symposium

Should Law School Clinics Select Clients by Roulette?

I am delighted to announce that Concurring Opinions will be hosting a symposium next Monday and Tuesday on What Difference Representation? Offers, Actual Use, and the Need for Randomization, the forthcoming Yale Law Journal article by Jim Greiner and Cassandra Wolos Pattanayak.  [Update: You can read all posts in the symposium by clicking on this link.]  As you may recall, What Difference has already caused quite a stir in the clinical and legal aid communities. Given our shared interest in questions of empirical methodology, and Jaya’s background in clinical legal services, we decided that bringing that debate to CoOp would be an excellent use of our time and energy. Here’s the (revised) abstract) – though you should download the article if you haven’t already:

“We report the results of the first in a series of randomized control trials designed to measure the effect of an offer of, and the actual use of, legal representation. The results are unexpected. In the context of administrative litigation to determine eligibility for unemployment benefits, a service provider’s offer of representation to a claimant had no statistically significant effect on the claimant’s probability of a victory, but the offer caused a delay in the proceeding. Because a substantial percentage of the provider’s client base consisted of claimants who were initially denied benefits but who would later have that initial denial reversed as a result of the litigation, the offer of representation inflicted a harm upon such claimants in the form of an additional waiting time for benefits to begin, this with no discernible increase in the probability of a favorable outcome. In other words, within the limits of statistical uncertainty, these claimants would have been better off without the offer of representation. The size of the delay (around two weeks, depending on how measured) was not large in absolute terms, and would have been negligible in many other legal settings, but was relevant in the context of this particular administrative and legal framework, one in which speed has remained a special concern for decades. Moreover, in a small number of cases with a certain profile, the delay caused the unemployment system to continue paying benefits erroneously for a longer period of time, potentially imposing costs on the financing of the unemployment system. We were also able to verify a delay effect due to the actual use of (as opposed to an offer of) representation; we could come to no firm conclusion on the effect of actual use of representation on win/loss.

We hypothesize three potential explanations for our findings (and acknowledge that others are possible). First, it is possible that the client base that reached out to the service provider (and thus was subject to randomization) was a specialized subset of unemployment claimants, a subset that did not actually need legal assistance. This theory suggests special attention to provider intake systems. Second, it is possible that the administrative adjudicatory system at issue, with its semi-inquisitorial style of judging, is pro se friendly. Third, it is possible that the subject matter in dispute in these cases is less legally, factually, or procedurally complex than in other settings.

We caution against both over- and under-generalization of these study results. We use these results as a springboard for a comprehensive review of the quantitative literature on the effect of representation in civil proceedings. We find that this literature provides virtually no credible information, excepting the results of two randomized evaluations occurring in different legal contexts and separated by over three decades. We conclude by advocating for, and describing challenges associated with, a large program of randomized evaluation of the provision of representation, particularly by legal services providers.”

We have assembled a terrific group of symposiasts, mixing clinicians, academic empiricists and practitioners. Besides Jim, Cassandra, Jaya and me,  the group includes twelve contributors, lauded in detail after the jump:

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Law & Econ’s Influence on Law & Accounting

The hottest book of the century, on corporate law, is in production, thanks to editors Brett McDonnell and Claire Hill, both of Minnesota. As part of a series investigating the economics of particular legal subjects, overseen by Richard Posner and Francesco Perisi, this Research Handbook on the Economics of Corporate Law, promises a comprehensive canvass of the broadest definition of this field of law as it has been structured by economic theories over the past forty years.

My contribution addresses the influence of law and economics on the sub-field of law and accounting, which I suggest takes the form of “two steps forward one step back.”  You can read a draft of my chapter (comments welcome!), available free here, accompanied by the following abstract:

Theory can have profound effects on practice, some intended and desirable, others unintended and undesirable. That’s the story of the influence the field of law and economics has had on the domain of law and accounting. That influence comes primarily from agency theory and modern finance theory, specifically through the efficient capital market hypothesis and capital asset pricing model. Those theories have forged considerable change in federal securities regulation, accounting standard setting, state corporation law, and financial auditing. Affected areas include the nature of disclosure, the measure of financial concepts, the limits of shareholder protection, and the scope of auditor duty.

Analysis reveals how agency theory and finance theory often but not always point to the same policy implications; it reveals how finance theory’s assumptions and limitations are often but not always respected in policy development. As a result, while these theories sometimes produced policy changes that were both intended and desirable, some policy changes were both unintended and undesirable while others were intended but undesirable.  Examination stresses the power of ideas and how they are used and cautions creators and users of ideas to take care to appreciate the limits of theory when shaping practice. That’s vital since the effects of law and economics on law and accounting remain debated in many contexts.

Other contributions to the book similarly available in draft form are by Matt Bodie (St. Louis), David Walker (BU) and Charles Whitehead (Cornell).  The following scholars are also contributing chapters: Bobby Ahdieh (Emory), Steve Bainbridge (UCLA), Margaret Blair (Vandy), Rob Daines (Stanford), Steve Davidoff (Ohio State), Jill Fisch (Penn), Tamar Frankel (BU), Ron Gilson (Stanford/Columbia), Jeff Gordon (Columbia), Sean Griffith (Fordham), Don Langevoort (GT), Ian Lee (Toronto), Richard Painter (Minnesota), Frank Partnoy (SD), Gordon Smith (BYU), Randall Thomas (Vandy), and Bob Thompson (GT).


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 fellowtravelers) 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.