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Psychology for Lawyers



Toegelaten tot Honours College Law.


To ensure legal certainty and fairness, judges are expected to simply apply the law to a given case in an objective manner. The same can be said for lawyers. When representing their clients and for example assessing the likelihood litigation will be successful, they too should analyze a case in the light of the applicable laws. In other words, judges and lawyers are expected to be rather ‘legalistic’ and ‘clinical’. Irrelevant factors, such as their mood that day, when they last ate, their personal opinion of the parties involves, or their own ideas about right and wrong or what the outcome of a case should be, should not affect their legal judgments.

Yet, research in psychological science and related fields such as behavioral economics have demonstrated that a whole host of irrelevant factors can affect human judgment in a largely unconscious fashion. Systematic deviations from a rational ideal are called ‘biases’. A plethora of biases have been identified in the past decades and some have also been demonstrated to affect legal professionals.

The goal of this course is to familiarize students with the body of knowledge available in psychological science that is relevant for lawyers and could greatly benefit them, in particular in relation to judgment and decision making. To this end, students will first be introduced to the foundations of the unconscious brain and the many processes relevant for judgment and decision making that operate outside of conscious awareness. Next, students will be introduced to the notion of heuristics, biases, and ‘noise’. Once this foundation has been laid, we will apply this knowledge to legal issues. For example, how might biases and personally held beliefs affect how the reasonable person standard is applied? How do lawyers and judges draw causal inferences and how might psychological factors affect such inferences? Why is it so difficult to assess the foreseeability of damage in hindsight? Could it be that foreseeability is sometimes assumed where a certain damage was in fact not foreseeable at all? And how do moral judgments, for example about a person’s character, affect how we make sense of a case? Could it be that negative perceptions about an individual affect legally relevant judgments concerning for example causation, foreseeability, and punishment?

During this course students will read the latest scientific papers and will thus be up-to-date with the state of the art science in this area. The context of this course is not limited to criminal law and will extend to matters related to any field of law.

After this course, students will recognize the discussed psychological processes in legal practice and be able to identify them, discuss them, and hopefully prevent themselves and others from falling prey to them. All in all, the students should become better, more well-rounded lawyers as a result of this course.


Na afronding van het vak hebben studenten de volgende kwalificaties verworven:

  • You can describe how unconscious processes affect human judgment and decision making and dissociate between system 1 and system 2 thinking.

  • You can describe the notions of biases and heuristics, and identify those that are particularly relevant for the context of legal decision making.

  • You can evaluate and present state-of-the-art scientific research and explain how it is relevant for legal decision making.

  • You can analyze a legal proceeding (either in court or in writing) and evaluate where there might be/have been risk of biases affecting the outcome of the case.

Onderwijsvormen en toetsing

During this course we will have interactive seminars,
in which students will be presented with the relevant psychological theories and in which discussions will be held on the topics of the prescribed reading materials.
Each student will also present some of the prescribed scientific papers.
Finally, students will analyze a legal proceeding and write a paper in which the students analyze the risk of biases in that particular case.
Let op; de voertaal van het onderwijs is Nederlands.


Het vak is in blok 3, de zeven onderwijsweken van ma. 7 febr. t/m vr. 25 maart, telkens op de dinsdag, van 17:15 – 20:00 uur.
Voor de eindpaper is er voor studenten ruimte t/m 8 april om die te schrijven.


Bij dit vak wordt gebruik gemaakt van Brightspace.


We will not use a textbook. Instead, scientific papers will provided through Brightspace


Via de administratie van Honours College Law:

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