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Psychology of Legal Decision-Making

November 02, 2023

In the “Psychology of Legal Decision-Making” seminar, students learn about substantive areas of legal scholarship and also practice essential skills for understanding—and even developing—new empirical research.

The impact of innovative legal scholarship can be profound. Thoughtfully presented new ideas – especially those that transcend disciplinary boundaries – can serve as critical tools for advocates as they push our legal system forward toward a more just future.

In the “Psychology of Legal Decision-Making” seminar, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law students have the opportunity to dive right into this world. Under the guidance of co-lecturers William A. Schnader Professor of Law David Hoffman and Golkin Family Professor and Professor of Psychology Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08, students interact with scholars from across the country who are working on cutting-edge interdisciplinary research.

David Hoffman, William A. Schnader Professor of Law David Hoffman, William A. Schnader Professor of Law“The best version of what academics do is that they give each other constructive feedback and try to make each other’s intellectual projects more rich and more rigorous,” Hoffman said. “That’s what we encourage the students to do in this course.”

Building Foundations

Substantively, the course introduces students to several foundational and topics in psychology that come up again and again in law, like social perception and loss aversion. But both Hoffman and Wilkinson-Ryan underscored that the point of the course is not just to teach legal psychology, but rather to use that substance as a means of encouraging students to adeptly read legal scholarship and actively participate in the production of new knowledge.

Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L'05, G'06, PhD'08, Golkin Family Professor & Professor of Psychology Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08, Golkin Family Professor & Professor of Psychology“Penn Carey Law graduates will have to read empirical work in parts of their professional lives,” Wilkinson-Ryan said. “This course is a great way to develop the skill of reading empirical scholarship and thinking about what the purpose of the scholarship is. As attorneys and citizens, when they’re reading an article about the statistics of something in the world, they will have to ask, ‘How did these statistics come about? How do we find them? Do I trust them?’”

Over the course of the semester, students get to meet and engage with scholars who are actively honing their research and ideas.

For example, Visiting Professor of Law Netta Barak-Corren was one of the many scholars who visited the class in Spring of 2023. In preparation for Barak-Corren’s visit, the class read a working draft of her study on the Fulton v. City of Philadelphia ruling, a case about a city’s refusal to work with religious foster care agencies that would not permit placements with same-sex couples. Barak-Corren wanted to know what effect the law (requiring religious exceptions to anti-discrimination rules) would have on public perceptions of discrimination. To prepare for her workshop, students read related work to get a sense of the context in which Barak-Corren was writing. Thus, when Barak-Corren met with the students to present her draft, they were able to act as commentators and engage her with thoughtful, critical questions pertaining to her research.

Netta Barak-Corren, Visiting Professor of Law Netta Barak-Corren, Visiting Professor of Law“The workshop is built very thoughtfully: before each meeting with a guest speaker-author, students have a prep meeting with Professors Wilkinson-Ryan and Hoffman, in which they discuss the speaker’s paper against a few additional background papers. Then, they write individual comments on the paper, and finally, they articulate them in the meeting with the guest speaker in what quickly becomes a vibrant and extensive discussion of the paper,” Barak Corren said. “As the guest in this setting, I was delighted to see how each of the students brings another perspective to the discussion and covers yet another interesting angle of the work. I was truly impressed by the intellectual rigor of the students, their depth of reading, and their commitment to help improve the work further.”

One of the assignments in the course is for students to write reviews of the working drafts they read, which are then given to the authors. The aim is for students to gain familiarity with writing constructive and respectful feedback.

“We talk a lot about how you write something constructive that takes a person’s project seriously and that tries to help them get to the best version of the project,” Wilkinson-Ryan said. “We read the students papers and give them feedback about how to write these reviews in a real-world context.”

Creating Community

Central to the design of the course is the intentional cultivation of a community within the Law School focused on collaboration.

“Post pandemic, we were looking for something to really get as much as we can out of the in-person class experience, and something that’s back in action, which is great, is that people are starting to visit other schools again and give talks to other schools,” said Wilkinson-Ryan. “The two of us are both interested in building community in law and psychology and with people who do empirical work, so this workshop-style class really appealed to us.”

Hoffman underscored that the community element is central to the course. Even if students do not necessarily plan to enter the academic world post-graduation, building communities within the Law School and participating in team-based work can yield positive experiences.

“It’s a community building exercise,” Hoffman said. “A lot of our work is group-based discussion. This is not supposed to be an alienating or competitive experience; it’s supposed to be a place within the Law School where we are engaged together in a knowledge production project. That’s the best way to build communities: working together with others to do substantive work. My hope is to make this a happy classroom and contributor to discussions across the country and world.”

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