Course Unit Page


This teaching activity contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda.

Responsible consumption and production Peace, justice and strong institutions

Academic Year 2021/2022

Learning outcomes

On completing the course, students will have an understanding of (a) the main theories in cognitive psychology that are relevant to the legal phenomenon, with an emphasis on the concepts and processes involved in categorization, and (b) the peculiarities that legal concepts reveal in light of experimental data and of relevant theories and abstract concepts; (c) students will also be able to find their way about the literature in experimental psychology as it pertains to the study of law and of legal phenomena; (d) they will gain an understanding of the cognitive foundations of institutional structures from an evolutionary as well as an evolutional perspective; (e) they will have learned to recognize the cognitive “pressure points” that can strategically be exploited in exercising institutional and extra-institutional power, and will be able to approach these problems critically; and (f) they will be able to recognize the use of the rationalist decision-making model in the legal process, problematizing that model in light of the awareness they will have gained of the cognitive biases and errors that can skew that process.

Course contents

The standard model of legal reasoning is premised on the idea of a rational decision-maker fully equipped to make all the right decisions in any problem situation. To be sure, this model is rooted in a longstanding philosophical tradition within which it was developed in response to a crucial need to ensure the justice and certainty of the law. Increasingly, however, contemporary research in cognitive science has been exposing the shortcomings of this rationalist model by revealing that our decision-making and analytical processes rest on limited mental capacities subject to systematic error. What is more, this research is showing that our decision-making can be manipulated by doctoring its context, creating cognitive illusions, or triggering behavioural dependencies and addictions not unlike those at work in substance abuse or food addiction. In this course we will explore the ways in which these discoveries impact on our conception of law and on legal reasoning. The course is divided into three main parts: (1) we will first analyse the structure of legal institutions in light of the cognitive mechanisms that enable them to exist; (2) we will then analyse the structure of the decision-making process in the law and the cognitive limits it comes up against; and, finally, (3) we will consider some ways in which our legal reasoning can be manipulated, both by institutions (pursuing aims that are at least partly positive) and by private entities and individuals seeking to maximize profit. In summary, we will reflect on the ways in which jurists, armed with an awareness of these cognitive limits of their reasoning, can act to diminish their impact.

The contents of the course will be developed in connection with the Erasmus Project KA2 RECOGNISE - Legal Reasoning and Cognitive Science (https://www.recognise.academy/), in which Prof. Roversi coordinates the Unit "The Cognitive Structure of Legal Concepts".


Attending students:

1) M. Tomasello, Storia naturale della morale umana, Milano, Raffaello Cortina Editore, 2016.

2) R. Rumiati, C. Bona, G. Canzio, Dalla testimonianza alla sentenza. Il giudizio tra mente e cervello, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2019.

3) Readings discussed in class and distributed through the course's website on Virtuale.

Non-attending students:

1) M. Tomasello, Storia naturale della morale umana, Milano, Raffaello Cortina Editore, 2016.

2) R. Rumiati, C. Bona, G. Canzio, Dalla testimonianza alla sentenza. Il giudizio tra mente e cervello, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2019.

3) Readings discussed in class and discussed through the course's website on Virtuale.

4) Chapters (selected in agreement with the teacher) taken from:

- J. Haidt, Menti tribali, Codice edizioni, 2014.

- D. Kahnemann, Pensieri lenti e veloci, Milano, Mondadori, 2017.

Teaching methods

This is a blended course, combining in-person with remote teaching, the latter through the Microsoft Teams platform. The course consists of twenty-four lessons, two hours each, for an overall forty-eight hours. In each lesson, a topic will be introduced and the issues around it framed by way of questions put to students in real-time surveys that will then be used to broach an open discussion in which students are encouraged to provide their input. The objective is in the first place to sharpen students’ ability to appreciate the cognitive limits inherent in legal reasoning so as to reduce their impact. Students will also learn to recognize (a) the cognitive structures which underpin institutional phenomena and on which legal power can be understood to ultimately rest, and (b) the ways in which power can be used to manipulative effect, something the jurist will increasingly have to become aware of and grapple with.

Assessment methods

There will be an oral final exam consisting in a discussion of three arguments, one of which focused on the cognitive structure of legal institutions, one connected with the cognitive features of legal reasoning, and finally one related with the strategies of cognitive manipulation. The aim of the final exam is both to ascertain the knowledge acquired by the student and to evaluate the degree of the student's "response" to the course learning objectives, in particular as regards the students' critical skills.

Graduation of the final grade

Preparation on a very limited number of topics; analytical skills emerging only with the help of the teacher; overall correct language → 18-19.

Preparation on a limited number of topics; limited analytical skills; correct language → 20-24.

Preparation on a large number of topics; analytical skills above average; mastery of specific terminology → 25-29.

Exhaustive preparation; analytical skills above average; full mastery of specific terminology; autonomous argumentation skills → 30-30L.

Teaching tools

These include slides summarizing the main course topics, software to annotate texts and slides directly on screen, software (Rationale) to explain the structure of some theoretical problems, software (Kahoot) to make tests in a competitive gameplay framework, software to make pools online during classes to improve the discussion.

All the information relative to the course, as well as any supplemental course material, will also be available online on the course's website (Virtuale).

Office hours

See the website of Corrado Roversi