Steven Pinker Speaks at Harvard Law School
Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2009
From HLS in Focus (describing the new student group working with the Project on Law and Mind Sciences (PLMS) at Harvard Law School and the fascinating talk that Stephen Pinker recently gave there).
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“SALMS” is a recently formed group whose acronym stands for: Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences. They are interested keeping the law school community informed about research in the mind sciences that has profound implications for law and policy making. The group is currently in the process of creating a journal that touches on the same topic. If they are successful, it will be the first journal of its kind in the country.
The event that I attended was a lecture by Harvard College Professor, Steven Pinker. The title of the talk was: “A History of Violence: How We Became Less Violent” Professor Pinker explained that research indicates that although public perception is that we live in a dangerous and violent society, the facts back up a different theory. Society is becoming less violent. This statement is made based on data that span hundreds of years. Over this period of time, there have been less murders and overall violent crimes, fewer deaths from all kinds of war and much less capital punishment for non-violent crimes.
Professor Pinker also offered some reasons for why people might think that we live in a more violent period than ever before. The first is the availability heuristic. We think that society is more violent now because when asked, more recent examples are easier to remember and news of violent crimes spreads faster and farther than ever before. The second is a tendency to think that society is in a state of moral decay. We idealize the past and think that the present represents a departure from morals and values. The third is the fear that saying that violence is declining will make us too complacent rather than proactive about our own safety.
The evidence presented suggests that our inclinations toward violence have not changed over time but that societal constructions keep us from killing each other. For example, most of civilized society no longer approves of killing for revenge or honor. People still feel like they want to kill for these reasons but there is less incentive to go through with it and the consequences and probability of getting caught are just too high. We also have ample opportunity to live vicariously through the violence we get from the television, movies and videogames. The final reason for the decline in violence may be that people have become more valuable to us alive than dead. This is especially true on the national scale where countries depend on each other for different trade commodities.
Sitting in on this discussion made me realize that I was mistaken before when I thought that my undergraduate major in psychology would be irrelevant. Understanding the mind sciences can be a great help when it comes to understanding people’s behavior, the incentives they respond to and how we can shape law and policy in a way that helps enable the best outcomes. I really hope this group gets their journal off the ground. I can’t wait to attend their next event.
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To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Steven Pinker at Harvard Law School,” “Law Students Flock to Situationism,” “The Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences,” “Pinker on the Situation of Morality,” “Another Century of Genocide?,” “Steven Pinker’s Ted Talks on ‘The Stuff of Thought’,” “The Situation of Violence,” and “Time Changes Mind.”