From its earliest days, the law has forced its makers to be amateur psychologists. Myriad rules of evidence and procedure have been crafted to help ensure that human nature does not swamp the facts and law when it’s time for judges and jurors to make a decision.
This is a hard task on a good day. But recent research from Vanderbilt University casts new light on just how tough it is for courtroom rules to keep up with the inner workings of our brains as they process information and come to a decision. As reported in the National Law Journal, scientists used magnetic resonance imaging technology to watch the brain at work as subjects made decisions involving issues of crime and punishment.
“The analytical part of the brain — called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — was active when subjects were asked to decide whether or not people deserved to be punished. But the part of the brain that is responsible for emotions was triggered when people were asked to decide the level of punishment deserved in the scenarios,” writes the Journal’s Karen Sloan.
“Emotions are a part of legal decision-making,” added René Marois, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt who worked on the study, which was published in the current issue of the journal Neuron.
If confirmed, research like this would suggest a fresh look at the legal system’s safeguards against bias of all kinds, personal, political and beyond. Of course, instincts are often way ahead of the data: after all, 76% of Americans believe that campaign contributions affect the outcome of decisions in the courtroom.