Indiana Law Journal

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2010

Publication Citation

85 Indiana Law Journal 1333 (2010)


The Cultural Cognition Project (CCP) at Yale Law School and the Project on Law and Mind Sciences (PLMS) at Harvard Law School draw on similar research and share a similar goal of uncovering the dynamics that shape risk perceptions, policy beliefs, and attributions underlying our laws and legal theories. Nonetheless, the projects have failed to engage one another in a substantial way. This Article attempts to bridge that gap by demonstrating how the approach taken by PLMS scholars can crucially enrich CCP scholarship. As a demonstration, this Article engages the case of Scott v. Harris, 550 US. 372 (2007), the subject of a recent CCP study.

In Scott, the Supreme Court relied on a videotape of a high-speed police chase to conclude that an officer did not commit a Fourth Amendment violation when he purposefully caused the suspect's car to crash by ramming the vehicle's back bumper. Challenging the Court's conclusion that "no reasonable juror" could see the motorist's evasion of the police as anything but extremely dangerous, CCP Professors Dan M Kahan, David A. Hoffman, and Donald Braman showed the video to 1350 people and discovered clear rifts in perception based on ideological, cultural, and other lines.

Despite the valuable contribution of their research in uncovering the influence of identity-defining characteristics and commitments on perceptions, Kahan, Hoffman, and Braman failed to engage what may well be a more critical dynamic shaping the cognitions of their subjects and the members of the Supreme Court in Scott: the role of situationalf rames in guiding attributionso f causation,r esponsibility,a nd blame. As social psychologists have documented-and as PLMS scholars have emphasizedwhile identities, experiences, and values matter, their operation and impact is not stable across cognitive tasks, but rather is contingent on the way in which information is presented and the broader context in which it is processed

In large part, the Scott video is treated-both by the Supreme Court and by Kahan, Hoffman, and Braman-as if it presents a neutral, unfiltered account of events. However, it does not. Studies of viewpoint bias suggest that the fact that the video offers the visual and auralp erspective of a police officerp articipatingi n the chaserather than that of the suspect or a neutral third party-likely had a significant effect on both the experimental population and members of the Court.

Had the Supreme Court watched a different video of the exact same events taken from inside the suspect's car, this case may never have been taken away from the jury. Any discussion of judicial "legitimacy "-in both the descriptive and normative sense-must start here. The real danger for our justice system may not ultimately be the "visible fiction " of a suspect's version of events, as Justice Scalia would have it, or cognitive illiberalism as Kahan, Hoffman, and Braman would, but the invisible influence of situational frames systematically prejudicing those who come before our courts.