Avani Mehta Sood, Psychology

The Plasticity of Harm in the Service of Criminalization Goals

Wed, 10/03/2012
Noon, 438 Robertson Hall
Event Category: 
Graduate Students

Please join us on Wednesday, October 3, when Avani Mehta Sood, Ph.D. candidate in Psychology, will present "Exercising The Plasticity of Harm in the Service of Criminalization Goals."

Abstract:  "The "harm principle," which suggests that the State should criminalize conduct only if doing so is necessary to prevent harm to others, has long been at the center of debates about the legal enforcement of morality through the law. This Essay presents a series of original experiments that investigate the psychological "plasticity" of harm in the context of criminalization—i.e., the extent to which people may recruit harm to achieve desired outcomes within the terms of a given legal constraint. 

In the first study, we identified various scenarios that induced defiance of the harm principle, such that the participants wanted to criminalize the conduct even if they did not think that it caused harm to others. We then used these scenarios in a second study to investigate how people would respond when they were told that the law requires a finding of harm in order to impose a criminal penalty. As predicted, the respondents who were presented with the necessity-of-harm constraint continued to criminalize at the same rate, but they imputed harm to the conduct where harm was not previously reported. The third study demonstrated the directionality and universality of the harm plasticity effect by showing that a legally extrinsic ideological factor exacerbated the recruiting of harm among people on both sides of acontroversial issue (abortion), without their recognition. The final study provided evidence for the nonintentional nature of this effect and pointed toward a pathway to potential remedies. 

These experiments reveal motivated, outcome-driven perceptions of harm that are at odds with the objective, perception-driven outcomes toward which the legal system strives. We discuss the implications of our findings for the criminal regulation of morality, constitutional law, and theories of punishment and moral reasoning. Furthermore, we consider the application of our results to legal decision making by lay people and professional adjudicators in the context of two high-profile Ninth Circuit cases. We conclude with a discussion of how to potentially reduce motivated cognition in legal judgments."

Avani Mehta Sood is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at Princeton University. She received her J.D. in 2003 from Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal and a member of the Lowenstein International Human Rights Law Clinic and the New Haven Legal Assistance Clinic, Family Law Unit. She received her A.B. degree in Psychology, summa cum laude, from Princeton in 1999, along with the Edward E. Jones Memorial Thesis Prize, the Howard Crosby Warren Senior Prize, and induction into the Phi Beta Kappa society.  After law school, Avani worked as a litigation associate on international arbitration and internal investigation cases at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP; clerked for Judge Kimba Wood in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York; and was awarded the Robert L. Bernstein Fellowship in International Human Rights, through which she conducted extensive field research in India and Kenya with the Center for Reproductive Rights' International Legal Program. For more about Avani, click here.

LEGS, or "Law-Engaged Graduate Students," meets during the academic year to discuss a work in progress by one of our Graduate Associates. Academic papers, dissertation proposals, and dissertation chapters have been presented at these meetings, to an audience of fellow graduate students.