Long Institute Faculty Discuss Intersection of Psychology and the Law

May 2, 2014

UC Irvine’s Center for Psychology and Law professors recently presented highlights of their research at “Beyond CSI: We the People: The Victims, Offenders, and Wrongfully Accused.” The center’s mission is to bridge the gap between scientific evidence and public policy. Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean of UC Irvine School of Law said the research could be used to improve negative aspects of the criminal justice system such as misidentification by eyewitnesses.

Excerpts from the Presentations

Peter Ditto
Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior
“I don’t always think about morality, but when I do, I think of Dick Cheney,” he said. “I don’t mean this in a partisan way.” Cheney’s moral beliefs reveal universal truths, Ditto said. On almost every issue, he’s on the conservative end of the political spectrum, except for one – same-sex marriage. Why? Because one of his daughters is gay, and Ditto said he assumes Cheney loves her very much.

Why does former Vice President Cheney make this one exception? How does anyone arrive at their moral beliefs? And what are the implications for politics and the law? Moral intuitionism, a new view of morality that has developed over the past decade, suggests we use our emotions to determine what is right and wrong, not reason. “We don’t really reason very much about our moral beliefs,” he said. “Morality is more of an emotional affair than a cognitive affair.”

Applying moral intuitionism to the law, people will obey a law if they intuitively feel it’s moral. Same for politics. Moral intuition shapes what we believe. It’s why liberals and conservatives share some moral beliefs but differ on others. People decide their morals and then develop facts to explain them, he said. This leads to dueling facts.

“When we disagree about what the basic facts are, it makes lawmaking very challenging,” he said. “Our hope is that understanding intuitive morality can lead to better law and, ultimately, if we understand the way each other think, it will lead to more civil politics.”

Elizabeth Cauffman
Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior, Education and Law, and Director of the Center for Psychology and Law
Are adolescents developmentally different from adults in ways that require different treatment under the law? If so, should these developmental factors be considered? And at what age should the line be drawn between childhood and adulthood? Are adolescents even competent to stand trial? Cauffman’s research provides answers. She began by recounting the story of Paul Gingerich, who was jailed at age 12 for conspiracy to help his 15-year-old friend murder his abusive stepfather. Gingerich was tried as an adult in Indiana and sentenced to 25 years.

“Now we have a 12-year-old lifer sitting in jail for a conspiracy to commit murder even though he was 12 years old at the time,” she said. “Adolescents know the difference between right and wrong. A 5-year-old knows the difference between right and wrong,” she said.

At 16, adolescents are equivalent to adults in cognitive functioning. “This becomes the paradox: If adolescents are so smart why do they do such very stupid things?” she said. Blame it on the frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for emotional maturity, she said. Neuroscientific research indicates it isn’t fully developed until age 25.

“Kids know the difference between right and wrong,” she said. “They just don’t have the emotional ability to control that, so when you ask an adolescent why did you do that, and they say ‘I don’t know,’ they’re actually telling the truth.”

Knowing the difference between an adolescent brain and a mature brain can help improve the juvenile justice system she said.

Benjamin van Rooij
Professor and Academic Director of John S. and Marilyn of U.S.-China Institute for Business and Law
Van Rooij’s research looks at China to answer questions such as why people obey the law and how laws can be better designed. The challenge in China is implementation of laws. Weak enforcement leads to rule breaking, which is a vicious cycle, he said. If people know they’re going to get punished for breaking the rules, then fewer people break the rules.

One of the problems in China is that it’s difficult to distinguish between government and companies, which are often one and the same. If government has to regulate itself, that’s a problem. Another issue is a layer of informal rules below the formal rules. China is also an authoritarian system, which has few checks and balances.

Van Rooij and his colleagues have studied “enforcement campaigns” in China that include anti-corruption and food safety. These campaigns are similar to the U.S.’ “war against drugs.” There is short-term compliance during these campaigns. Getting people to obey the law for the long haul is difficult because central government doesn’t sway local law enforcement for long. Also, people have come to realize that the campaigns are short-lived, so they only mind the rules for a short period of time.

Van Rooij is now collaborating with psychologists for answers. “Psychology offers a lot of ways to improve compliance with the law,” he said.