Carlton Patrick
Carlton Patrick, assistant professor of legal studies, regularly teaches courses in Law and Emotions and Law and Human Behavior where students read from subjects like psychology, neuroscience, philosophy or anthropology and explore how different disciplines might help in understanding law. (Photo by Amy Floyd)

When Carlton Patrick read about biology’s application to the way we think about human psychology and behavior, it totally changed how this assistant professor of legal studies thought about law.

The intersection of these subjects peaked his interest “and since there are only a handful of people who apply these insights to legal thinking, it’s like a wide-open frontier with all this work just waiting to be done.”

After law school, Patrick practiced corporate transactional law — mostly work with mergers and acquisitions — for the law firm Holland & Knight LLP. While he found the work intriguing and a challenge, it never really indulged his academic desire.

Eager to combine his passion for law, biology and psychology, Patrick looked for evolutionary psychologists open to working across disciplines. He reached out to Debra Lieberman at the University of Miami who encouraged Patrick to come to south Florida where he received his doctorate in psychology with a specialization in behavioral neuroscience.

His interdisciplinary doctoral degree, which combines psychology, biology and neuroscience, led to a collaboration between Lieberman and Patrick who coauthored Objection named to Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2018 and nominated for this year's Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction. The book examines disgust and its impact on the legal system, asking the questions: Do we allow disgust, a primitive human emotion, to shape law? And should we?

At UCF, Patrick regularly teaches Law and Emotions and Law and Human Behavior. “Both are highly interdisciplinary courses where students delve into many themes I cover in my scholarship. We read from all over — psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, anthropology — to show how different disciplines help in thinking about and understanding law.”

Patrick is currently working with Daniel Sznycer, a psychologist at the University of Montreal, on a cross-cultural project where they found that intuitions of justice — or judgments about which behaviors should be punished and what punishment is deserved for certain acts — are similar across cultures and over time.

We might ask to what extent the law should reflect our universal human tendencies, precisely because they are part of human nature.

Carlton Patrick, Assistant Professor of Legal Studies

These findings matter, he says, because they reveal an underlying, universal human nature when it comes to the behavior and judgments surrounding it. It also shows that the law relies on, and cares about these intuitions of justice. Patrick says once we have established this understanding, we can start discussions on what we should do about it.

“We might ask to what extent the law should reflect our universal human tendencies, precisely because they are part of human nature. Conversely, we might ask to what extent the law should push back against these tendencies, since as a society we might now disagree with the intuitions that reliably develop as a result of our evolutionary past.”

Patrick says research in this area is still in its beginning stages. Relative to the law, which is an old discipline, the formal study of psychology is relatively young.

“We’re still figuring things out. In fact, a lot of the more modern advances in psychology, like the formal application of evolutionary thinking or the new technology and methods of neuroscience, are only a few decades old. Not many folks apply these things to legal thinking and so it’s kind of the Wild West. We’ll get there but the progress is incremental.”

Patrick says this area of study is important because it is the marriage of theory and practice. “The goal is to apply what we learn in the lab in ways that have a real, tangible impact on the legal system.”

Patrick is currently working on his second book tentatively titled A Natural Law: Evolution and the Origins of Legal Rules, which is under contract with Cambridge University Press. The book combines his own research with others to argue that laws are often based on instincts that reliably develop in humans and were built by evolution over thousands of generations.

“It explores the relationship between our factory-equipped instincts and the more logical principles we tend to associate with the law, and the push and pull between the two that law often must negotiate.”