Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Threats, Context, and Attention

Human beings -- of which law students are a subset -- are notoriously unreliable when trying to figure out what to worry about.

This is not to say that we cannot recognize potential threats in a general way; only that, because of the way we are hard-wired to process threats, we sometimes overestimate certain threats, which in turn can cause us to underestimate, or even overlook, other threats.  An article in The Washington Post several weeks ago explained why the public and the media seemed to be more panicky about the new coronavirus than about other looming threats.  The article did not suggest that the virus is not dangerous or shouldn't be taken seriously, but it did try to explain why it has been featured so prominently in public discourse, when other greater and more palpable threats to health, like influenza or poor nutrition, barely merited discussion.  Among the reasons for this amplification of attention:

  • "We instinctively worry more about new risks than familiar ones" -- perhaps in part because we worry more about things we cannot control, and things that seem new and mysterious also seem more out of our control.
  • We worry more about things that remind us of other things that frighten us -- the way a new global pandemic might remind us of The Plague or any of a dozen science-fiction movies -- because that fear is more readily elicited.
  • We tend to pay more attention to threats that other people are talking about, because we are social animals and we assume there is a reason that other people are anxious.

Again, the point of the article was not to suggest that the new virus did not merit any concern.  It was merely trying to explain why, for example, people who were blasé about obtaining a flu shot might be terrified of a disease that (at the time) hadn't even reached their hemisphere yet.

In a similar way, law students can sometimes be hyperaware of the existence of a particular threat to their performance, but might devote so much attention to it that they neglect or even overlook other concerns that, in reality, might have a bigger impact on their grades and other outcomes.  They might pay a lot of attention to the risks of failing at new tasks -- like writing case briefs or mastering IRAC format -- simply because they are new and mysterious, and perhaps at the expense of addressing more familiar and pervasive concerns like grammar or logical reasoning.  Students who are afraid of, say, public speaking might devote inordinate attention to being prepared to recite case details if they are cold-called in class -- as if the professor were planning to determine that student's grade for the course based on one recitation -- and in the process those students may not have the time or energy to try to extrapolate deeper implications from the case or to fit it into a larger picture.  And if it seems like the rest of the class is saying that a particular resource or exercise is the key to acing a certain class, how many students are going to be able to resist the call of that bandwagon, even if a different resource might be more effective for them?  

The things our students worry about, they are probably justified in worrying about them.  But sometimes the way they worry about them might draw their attention from other threats to their performance that deserve more emphasis, more consideration, and more action.  

[Bill MacDonald]


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