NYT on Neurolaw; No free will in panty hose selection

Jeffrey Rosen has a long article on neuroscientific findings relevant to law; the article runs the gamut from questions of culpability and ethics to forensic uses (such as lie detection).

Steven Morse from Penn is extensively cited in the middle section of the piece. I like this part a lot (which is different than saying I agree, of course)…

Morse insists that “brains do not commit crimes; people commit crimes” — a conclusion he suggests has been ignored by advocates who, “infected and inflamed by stunning advances in our understanding of the brain . . . all too often make moral and legal claims that the new neuroscience . . . cannot sustain.” He calls this “brain overclaim syndrome” …

Morse agrees that our brains bring about our behavior — “I’m a thoroughgoing materialist, who believes that all mental and behavioral activity is the causal product of physical events in the brain” — but he disagrees that the law should excuse certain kinds of criminal conduct as a result. “It’s a total non sequitur,” he says. “So what if there’s biological causation? Causation can’t be an excuse for someone who believes that responsibility is possible. Since all behavior is caused, this would mean all behavior has to be excused.”

Then, Morse adds a concession…

“Suppose neuroscience could reveal that reason actually plays no role in determining human behavior,” he suggests tantalizingly. “Suppose I could show you that your intentions and your reasons for your actions are post hoc rationalizations that somehow your brain generates to explain to you what your brain has already done” without your conscious participation. If neuroscience could reveal us to be automatons in this respect, Morse is prepared to agree with Greene and Cohen that criminal law would have to abandon its current ideas about responsibility and seek other ways of protecting society.

And Rosen then discusses the Liben finger-raising study and “free will”. But I like the Nisbett (1977) panty hose study as a great example of how cognitive processes and cognitive products are divorced. In the Nisbett study, participants were recruited outside a shopping mall. They were presented with three panty hose selections and were asked to choose the highest quality pair. A large majority of the participants choose the last pair of hose as the best. When asked why, people typically stated that is was finer to the touch, more sheer, or made similar qualitative comments. No participants claimed they were the same or that they could not tell a difference, and none volunteered that the reason for their choice had anything to do with the position of the pair in sequence. Bias toward the final pair was apparent but not subject to “rational” evaluation. It’s all post-hoc rationalizing!

In fact, as Daniel Reisberg attempts to convey in his excellent Cognition textbook, many of our momentary reflections are reconstructions of what we assume must be the case, rather than an accurate reflection of the actual processes by which we arrived at our mental state. Those processes are hidden from us by consciousness; indeed Reisberg speculates that hiding processing states is a primary function of consciousness.

2 responses to “NYT on Neurolaw; No free will in panty hose selection

  1. when you say it’s ove. Piet Nirvana.

  2. when you say it’s ove. Horsa Amadeo.

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