As part of their metacognitive reflection, students should be aware of other phenomena that may—unconsciously—cloud their thinking process. These include priming and various forms of stereotyping.

Priming takes place when an individual receives a stimulus that influences his or her actions in response to a similar stimulus that the same individual receives later. As a way of illustration, suppose a person in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is shown a slice of a dulce de leche cheesecake—a dessert that is not at all popular in Northern Michigan—and that, unlike restaurants in regions with a large Latino population, probably no restaur ant offers it in its menu. Then, that person is asked to make a list of desserts one may find in restaurants. This person will likely include dulce de leche cheesecake in his or her answers. If this person has not been primed with dulce de leche cheesecake, he or she may not have thought of this dessert. Similarly, if students discuss a series of input stories dealing with legislative intent as the interpretative method for statutes, and then they are presented with a case that calls for the plain meaning rule, some students will apply the legislative intent method, even if this is incorrect.

Priming can have long-lasting effects, particularly when it is done subliminally. Paul Kolers (1976), an American psychologist with the University of Toronto, conducted a very interesting project in the 1970’s to test the effects of priming. He asked university students to read some pages written in upside-down typography. He told the students that they had to read out loud for speed and accuracy. More than a year later, he gave those same students more pages to read in this format. He included a few of the pages that students had read the year before. He measured the speed of their reading. Students read those few pages that they had read before considerably faster than the new pages. Studies in memory and learning confinn that the higher speed may not be attributed to memory, but only to a lasting effect of priming.

In another experiment, four researches—from Stanford University, UCLA, Virginia, and Brooklyn College—exposed undergraduate students to subliminal priming associated with intelligence (Lowery et al., 2008). While working on a seemingly unrelated task, two groups of students were exposed to words that appeared in a computer such as “intelligent, smart, brilliant, bright, talented, sharp, clever, brainy, gifted, educated, genius, and learned” (Lowery et al., 2008). One group of students was told that the activity they did was intended to improve their academic performance. The researchers did not tell anything to the second group. Results in an immediate practice test and the later exam show that students who did not know about the priming performed better than students who knew about the priming experiment.

In the examples reported in the literature, researchers consciously manipulate concepts and explicitly prime their subjects. But priming can also occur unintentionally. We can all prime our stirdents in our classes, even if we do not intend to affect their performances. For example, if we mention a few cases dealing with crimes whose social harm may be committed with wrongful conduct and then we ask our stirdents to give examples of crimes, most will likely give examples of offenses that have the same structure, that is to say, wrongful conduct rather than attendant circumstances or wrongfill result. Similarly, if we start a class talking about the final exam, grades, or other issues that may cause student anxiety, when students are asked to conduct an activity—even one that they normally find pleasant—they will unconsciously associate it with the final exam and grades, and they will not enjoy it (Aronson, et al., 2002).


Stereotyping, which is closely connected to pruning, may also affect the thinking process. In Chapter 4, I discussed the concept and effects of stereotype threats. Other forms of—overt and deep seated—stereotyping may also negatively impact our thinking and decision-making processes. There are certain groups of people, situations, and traditions that are negatively associated with societal stereotypes.

The criminal justice systems in North America and elsewhere are replete with examples of unfair arrests, prosecutions, convictions, sentencing, and even executions directly linked to stereotyping and discrimination of minorities. A quick examination of the list of death penalty executions in the United States shows that most cases are directly or indirectly linked to stereotyping, which shows its powerfill influence.

The impact of stereotyping and discrimination has long entered the university and law school classrooms. This affects students’ thinking process and may lead them to incorrect results. Suppose, for, example, that a group of students are given an input story about a bar fight between a white corporate executive man wearing an expensive Armani suit and a visibly drunk, black parolee man wearing baggy jeans and a tom T-shirt. If students are asked to play the role of a police officer who has to figure out what happened and has to act accordingly, including making an arrest if appropriate, most students will probably fill the gap in the input stoiy through the stereotype that poor, drunk, black men are violent. They will most likely conclude that the black man with a criminal record assaulted the white, rich, executive.


When you like something or someone, you are more likely to attribute positive characteristics to them. Liking a person, thing, place, or event has a positive impact on your—unconscious—thought and decision-making processes. A judge who likes the defendant is more likely to—unconsciously—give that person a lighter sentence than to defendant he or she does not like. Ajob hiring committee will hue a candidate that it likes over a candidate it does not. A teacher is more likely to give a better grade to a student he or she likes.

People get to like the things, events, societies, and places that they are exposed to, provided they do not experience negative effects. Similarly, we like those people whose life stories fit within ours, that is to say, when we find some similarities between their life stories and ours. The popular culture industry knows this very well. When audiences are exposed to celebrities for a long time, celebrities become familiar. They are part of the viewer’s everyday life, much like their family and friends. In some cases, viewers can know—or think they know—celebrities better than their own friends. “The mere exposure and familiarity with [the celebrities] leads to positive affect” (Hogarth, 2003). Advertising agencies cast celebrities to make commercials because of what their life stories represent in consumers’ minds. For example, Pénélope Cruz personifies the ideals of beauty, intelligence, and sophistication that so many people all over the world identify with. Similarly, Beyoncé appeals to audiences because she embodies an image of hard work, honesty, and authenticity.

The flip side of the mere exposure effect is that we tend to dislike the people, events, and things we are not familiar with. This explains factors such as discrimination against people from other backgrounds. In the nutrition realm, research experiments show that children need to be offered a new food between 10 and 15 tunes before they like it (Lerner and Parlakian, 2007). So, the mere exposure effect can have negative consequences when we have to assess people or things. This lack of familiarity may lead us to erroneous conclusions. For example, in a job hiring process, a hiring committee may erroneously believe that a person whose background they are unfamiliar with or whose life story does not fit with the life stories of the members of the hiring committee is not suitable for the job when in fact the candidate really is. Similarly, a judge or jury may find someone liable or guilty simply because their—unconscious—rapid cognitive models are telling them that they do not like the defendant.


Metacognition is the practice of reflecting about and monitoring one’s own learning process. It is a very useful strategy that permits the learner to make adjustments and implement changes while learning. Metacognition requires students to be familiar with both general and discipline-specific tools and resources to focus on their learning process. An effective way to present these tools and resources to students is through a series of questions that they can ask while learning law and criminal justice. Students also need to know the mechanisms that our brain uses to interpret and process stories. Equally important, they need to be aware of unconscious mechanisms that affect the understanding of stories. These include priming, stereotyping, the mere exposure effect, and mental methods to deal with anomalies, contradictions, and gaps in the input story.

The next chapter examines an experience in a criminal law course taught entirely through the popular culture.


metacognition metacognitive questions story processing gaps in input story priming stereotyping

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