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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Judged on their merits

April 12, 2012

Erik Girvan.

Photo by David Mendolia.

U student seeks ways to reduce impact of stereotypes in legal system

By Bill Magdalene

Erik Girvan, a graduate student in psychology, will be among the presenters at the Doctoral Research Showcase, April 17. He took time out to discuss his work on how training in legal rules create "habits of meaning" that can keep people from making socially biased decisions.


Q&A with Erik Girvan

In simple terms, what's your research about?
Most of us are aware of the stereotypes commonly associated with people of different races, genders, and other social groups. Even if we do not agree with the stereotypes, sometimes they affect how we see, understand, and respond to events around us. In my research I look for and test ways to prevent this from happening, particularly for decisions in the legal system.

My long-term goal ... is to find practical interventions that can be used to reduce the impact of stereotypes on decisions in the legal system without causing too much disruption to the way the system works now.

When did you become interested in this?
While taking a course in classical political theory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I was intrigued by the notion that the purpose of law might be to help citizens develop a habit of civically minded action.

After graduation, I decided to learn more about whether and how this occurs but to do so from first-hand experience rather than as an outsider conducting scholarly research. So I went to law school, was admitted to the bar, and spent several years litigating complex commercial cases in courts all over the country. While challenging and engaging work, I ultimately wanted to address the questions that first got me interested in the law more directly.

Why is research into stereotypes important?
The idea that people should be judged on their merits, not their race, ethnicity, or gender is basic to our society. Nevertheless, those and other social categories frequently change how we view and treat others, even when we don't want them to. Understanding how to structure situations in advance so that the people in them will tend to rely more on merit and less on stereotypes will help improve the ability of the legal system to close this gap.

What's the biggest challenge in the work?
Research exploring general psychological theory in legal contexts is interdisciplinary on many levels. While this should make the work more impactful, it also creates barriers. Translating between the language, insights, and methods of experimental psychology and the traditions, procedures, and practical considerations of the legal system can be very difficult.

Having worked on both sides helps, but insufficient knowledge, mistrust, or simply differences in values about what is most important or persuasive can thwart even the best projects.

What do you love most about research?
Being able to pose a question to the universe about why people behave as they do and actually get an answer. It is fun to be right. But even when I am wrong, at least I find out rather than proceeding, however blissfully, in ignorance. There are too many pressing social problems for us to waste our time and resources on intuitive but ineffective solutions that we just did not bother to test.

What's your career goal?
My parents, mentors, and others who I most admire tend to be scientists and educators, often but not always in academia, who have found a way to use their time and talents to pursue solutions to problems outside of the laboratory. I hope to follow that path by working at a university that can provide a strong base for research but also appreciates and facilitates the unique position its faculty are in to engage meaningfully with broader problems as well as to motivate others to do the same.

What inspires you in a teacher or fellow student?
Passion about what they are teaching or studying, and the vision to see how it connects to or explains things in a way that I had not thought about before. It is a real gift to be able to show others a new way to understand the world.

What do you like to do outside of class?
Go hiking, play with my two kids, have brunch with my wife, chat and debate with friends, read, listen to "The Current" on Minnesota Public Radio, data analysis, and drink coffee (especially in combination with brunch, chats, reading, listening to music, or data analysis).

Why the U of M?
The social psychology area in the Psychology Department at the U of M has a very good reputation for solid basic science research, prides itself on giving its students a broad theoretical tool box by exposing them to a range of areas within the field, and is encouraging to students who have somewhat applied interests.

In fact, while exploring options for graduate school, when I would explain what I was interested in studying, social-psychology faculty from various programs around the country frequently recommended that study here. And more than once while presenting at national conferences I have had people comment upon noticing the University of Minnesota on my name tag that I must be getting very good research training.

What's one tip a researcher should keep in mind?
The experiment you are working on now is a data point in a review, meta-analysis, or other collection of work that someone (maybe you) will do in 10 or 15 years. Although all scientists know that research is about converging results and incremental advancement, too often people get caught up in … tying down loose ends. They miss the core purpose of the study. At the end of the day, it is better to do a good job at one thing than a poor job at many.

Related Links

Doctoral Research Showcase