Courting Research: Psychology and Law Go Hand-in-Hand

Life is full of tough choices. Sell or hold? Left or right? Guilty or not guilty?

Every fall, many students around the country face a particularly difficult decision – law school or graduate school? For a small group of psychologists, the answer was easy: both.

Monica Miller received her MA in psychology and her law degree last December. Now, she’s working on her PhD in social psychology with an eye towards a career in trial consulting or public policy. As a student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Miller is completing a dual-degree program co-sponsored by the department of psychology and the school of law.

“Lawmakers often don’t understand how the laws they make are really going to affect people,” Miller said. “Research can sometimes suggest better legal options.” She said that having a law background might help psychologists understand the legal process and better communicate their research findings to policy makers.

APS Charter Member Richard Wiener is director of the Nebraska program, and current editor of the journal Law and Human Behavior. He earned his doctorate in social psychology at the University of Houston, and later returned to school to earn a master’s of legal studies at Nebraska.

“I was doing a variety of work on social judgment and legal decision making,” Wiener said. “I got very interested in the applications of that work in the legal arena and found that much of the work that I did, though it made a good deal of sense from a purely psychological perspective, was not relevant to legal issues.”

Wiener added that students who earn both the JD, or Juris Doctor, and PhD have a variety of career options. Some may become academics, whereas others choose to practice law, become trial consultants, or conduct policy research. Those who earn the master of legal studies rather than the JD complete approximately 20 hours of coursework in the law school, but are not certified to practice law. These students take legal classes “[exploring] the application of psychology to legal problems and the intersection between law and psychology,” Wiener said.

According to APS Fellow and Charter Member Bruce Sales, a JD/PhD who founded the dual-degree program at the University of Nebraska during the early 70s, “Earning a law degree allows a researcher to identify questions that might otherwise be overlooked.

“If you are interested in studying about human behavior in legal settings, then, in fact, the law degree, the JD, can be enormously helpful,” explained Sales, who is currently director of the psychology, policy, and law program at the University of Arizona, and formerly served as the first editor for both the Law and Human Behavior and Psychology, Public Policy, and Law journals.

“[With a JD], you’ll be able to understand the specifics of the question,” he added. “To put it in scientific terms, you’ll be able to operationalize the questions in a way that most PhDs would not be able to, because they simply don’t understand the way the law works.”

As with the Nebraska program, the program at Arizona offers students the opportunity to study for a JD through the School of Law while earning a PhD through the psychology department.

Daniel Krauss, now assistant professor of psychology at Claremont-McKenna College, earned both a JD and a joint PhD in clinical psychology and psychology, policy, and law at Arizona. His research focuses on applying clinical psychological findings to legal issues. His work has explored the definition of “insanity” and the determination of a suspect’s competency to stand trial.

Krauss’ dual degrees led to a unique opportunity when he was selected as a Supreme Court Fellow for the 2002-2003 academic year. As a fellow, he worked in Washington, DC, gaining insight into the operations of the court and conducting research at the US Sentencing Commission.

Krauss said that students with a psychology background might have a different perspective on the law than those who come into law school with a more traditional political science or public policy background. “You have a completely different approach to the use of evidence,” he said. “You understand how to test hypotheses, what good science looks like, what bad science is, and how to talk about reliability and validity.”

He added that law school gives a psychologist additional training in analytical thinking and in arguing both sides of any issue. “In psychology, you always have your hypothesis; you’re always testing that. In law school, you’re really forced to take both sides of an argument.”

Barbara Spellman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and secretary on the APS Board of Directors, started out as a lawyer with a big firm in Manhattan. This career was vastly lucrative – and she hated it. Then one day she picked up a copy of Howard Gardner’s book The Mind’s New Science. “I read it in like two days,” Spellman said, “and I realized, ‘wait a minute, people are doing what I’m interested in, this is what I’ve always cared about.’ ”

So Spellman quit the firm and, at age 30, went back to school to earn a doctorate in cognitive psychology. Her current research focuses on causal reasoning – how people determine whether something caused something else to happen.

“Causal reasoning has some very interesting implications for the law,” she said. “We don’t want to impose liability or send anybody to jail unless they have caused some damage or result.”

For example, Spellman said, the defense in tobacco lawsuits may attempt to cast doubt on the relationship between a particular person’s use of cigarettes and his health problems. “The defense is one of causality. How do we know cigarettes gave this guy lung cancer? This guy once walked into a coal mine. The guy went to an elementary school that had asbestos in the ceiling.”

Spellman added that psychological research could potentially contribute to our understanding of how people really go about the process of reasoning through legal arguments.

“Law works on precedent and old wives’ tales,” she explained. “In fact, the older the wives’ tale, the better. It’s not really clear that some of the ways law works is taking into account the way people reason. Psychology gets down to what it is that people really do.”


Observer Vol.17, No.1 January, 2004

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