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Research - old page


In the United States, many lawsuits are decided by default when defendants fail to appear in court to contest allegations against them. This is especially true in debt collection cases, where estimates of default rates range from 80-90%. Numerous appellate courts have held that routine default is against public policy, because it breeds a system in which the state publicly declares a winner to a dispute without the opportunity to assess the relevant facts and apply the law. I am working with Jim Greiner, Dalié Jiménez, and Andrea Matthews to field a three-state randomized controlled trial (RCT) examining the effect of sending mailings to debt collection defendants urging them to appear in court. The field experiment will examine how various messages and behavioral "nudges" affect the rates at which defendants file answer forms and appear in court.


In the wake of national outrage and polarization over several high-profile police killings of unarmed citizens, reformers have called for police officers to wear body cameras. In a study of mock jurors’ perceptions of real police footage, I find that observers’ prior attitudes toward the police color their interpretation of what transpired in the videos, resulting in considerable polarization. Further, I find that video evidence does not conclusively outperform non-video testimony in minimizing decision-makers’ reliance on their prior attitudes. Study participants learned of an incident involving a police officer and citizen by either watching a video of the altercation, reading dueling accounts of the altercation written from the perspectives of the police officer and of the citizen, reading a single account from the perspective of a disinterested third party, or reading only the police officer’s version of events. Prior attitudes toward police significantly affected judgments of the officer’s conduct in all four conditions and did not differ significantly across the different types of evidence. Moreover, people who identified strongly with the police—but not those who identified weakly—became more confident in their judgments when presented with video evidence. Ultimately, I believe we should be more skeptical of the commonsense view that body cameras will reduce polarization by telling us unambiguously and definitively what happened. 

Punishment and Moral Responsibility

In another line of work, I have examined the psychology of punishment. I am interested in questions such as: when tortfeasors die, why don't we impose punitive damages against their estates? The answer, I suggest, is that despite our insistence that punitive damages serve deterrence, our punishment decisions more closely follow an outrage heuristic. In another study, conducted with Daniel Herz-Roiphe, I examined moral intuitions regarding dumb luck. We find evidence that people use a folk moral theory that matches agents' luck to their character: they are willing to punish bad actors for unforeseen, unintended unlucky outcomes -- but not for unforeseen, unintended, good outcomes. And they are willing to hold good actors accountable for good luck, but not bad. We argue that this "matching heuristic" can help us understand the criminal law's puzzling treatment of luck, especially in domains where our data indicate that matching intuitions are strongest.

Public Attitudes Toward Consent

I am interested lay perceptions of when consent has been granted, particularly in situations in which agreement is obtained under conditions of deception. Across numerous scenarios and contexts, I find that large majorities of survey respondents view deception as compatible with consent. This finding holds true even when the perpetrator knows that his lie is crucial to securing the victim's acquiescence. It holds true whether the consent is to sex, to research, to medical procedures, to buy and sell land, or to a search under the Fourth Amendment. Further, the results indicate that whereas participants perceive high levels of consent when agreement is obtained via deception, they perceive low levels of consent when agreement is obtained via coercion. These results document, for the first time, that the canonical legal view of consent is at odds with lay intuitions about when consent has been undermined. I argue that this incongruity carries implications for the debate among rape scholars over how to treat sex-by-deception cases. More broadly, these findings raise questions about the public's commitment to the principle of sexual autonomy, widely believed to be gaining traction among activists, reformers, and lawmakers. Beyond sex, the concept of consent is ubiquitous in law. The incongruity between public attitudes and legal definitions of consent carry troubling ramifications for the public -- for their ability to assert their rights, as well as their ability to serve competently as fact-finders in legal cases involving consent. 

Discrimination in Employment and Higher Education

Past research has demonstrated that decision-makers choosing between individual applicants often inflate the importance of criteria that happen to favor in-group candidates, while deflating those same criteria when they would favor an out-group candidate. Comparatively little attention has been paid to how race or gender bias affect which criteria are deemed important in the abstract, at the policy-setting level. That is, when a hiring committee or admissions office is choosing which criteria should be given weight in the evaluation of applicants, is the choice affected by a desire to elevate the criteria that they think will advantage certain group members? Research I am conducting with Jack Dovidio examines whether the willingness to adopt a given criterion shifts depending on which group is expected to be advantaged by the addition of that criterion. We find that policy-setting decisions regarding abstract criteria can be motivated by a desire to exclude a disliked out-group. Current legal regimes do not protect against the problem identified by this research: that employees can apply the same neutral, job-related criteria to everyone while still working to exclude members of a disfavored minority group, by favoring criteria that disproportionately disadvantage members of that group.