The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘Steven Pinker’

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).

* * *

“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.

* * *

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.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Conflict, Events, History, Life | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Steven Pinker at Harvard Law School

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 16, 2009

Steven PinkerSALMS Logo Small 2 for WebsiteOn Tuesday, November 17, The HLS Student Association for Law and Mind Sciences (SALMS) and the HLS Harvard Graduate Mind, Brain, and Behavior (MBB) Steering Committee are hosting a talk by Steven Pinker entitled “A History of Violence: How We Became Less Violent.”

Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. Until 2003, he taught in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Republic, and is the author of seven books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate, and most recently, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.

The event will take place in Austin North at Harvard Law School, from 12:00 – 1:00 p.m.  FREE Burritos!

For more information, e-mail  For a sample of related   posts, see Pinker on the Situation of Morality,” Another Century of Genocide?,” “Steven Pinker’s Ted Talks on ‘The Stuff of Thought’,” and “Time Changes Mind.”

Posted in Events, History | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Steven Pinker’s Ted Talks on “The Stuff of Thought”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 24, 2008

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Posted in Book, Video | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Cognition, Law, Stories – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 24, 2008

Lorie Graham and Stephen McJohn, have posted their essay, “Cognition, Law, Stories” (forthcoming Minnesota Journal of Law (2009)) on SSRN. Here is the abstract.

* * *

This essay reviews Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought (Penguin 2007), which offers insights from cognitive science just where it overlaps the most with law – how we use basic cognitive categories like intent, space, time, events and causation. The Stuff of Thought might offer insights into a broad range of issues in legal theory. Legal theory could make more use of such cognitive science concepts as chunking, recursion, and the primary qualities of an object. Other topics likewise resonate in thinking about the law: The book suggests that metaphor is an important cognitive tool, but less constraining than might be thought. Linguistic analysis of verb classes and polysemy suggests that words have surprisingly determinate meaning. Our apparent innate sense of causation (drawn from an analysis of language) sheds light on the legal treatment of causation. Lastly, The Stuff of Thought describes the role of indirect speech, whereby people convey information without revealing their state of mind – which often allows social interaction to proceed smoothly. Default rules in the law, we suggest, often play an analogous role.

The essay then explores the cognitive aspects of stories (following literary theorists like Mark Turner who have linked cognitive science with narrative theory), suggesting a recursive definition of story, and another angle to the trolley problem. Looking at the cognitive role of stories permits a fuller view of legal reasoning, learning, and remembering. This fits well with recent scholarship, such as work on origin stories, and law and genre theory.

Posted in Abstracts, Book, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

%d bloggers like this: