Welcome to The Cross-Examined Life!

Allow me to introduce myself...

Posted Oct 01, 2019

I pursued my psychology degree because of the bar exam. In 2012, while investigating the cause of a downward trend in my law school’s pass rate for the school newspaper, I learned that only half of the African-American students from my school had passed. I was nervous; my chances of passing dropped 30 percent in one day! I asked around. The administration told me this was normal. But they didn’t know why.

I wasn’t going to be one of the 50% who failed, so I started studying a year early. I took extra bar prep courses offered by the school. Studied on weekends. Looked up psychological tricks to memorize material better. And in October of 2013, I was relieved to learn that I passed. 

…and so did 91% of the African-American students at my school. 

…and so did 94% (up from 86%) of the school. 

…and so did so many others that the state’s pass rate rose by 3%.

Then came 2014. The pass rate dropped back to 2012 levels. Law school deans debated the roller coaster ride in the New York Law Journal, but no one considered what happened in March of 2013. Then, two months before my cohort and I started studying for the bar, U.S. News and World Report had released its new rankings. The Law School Admissions Council doesn’t endorse these rankings, but prospective law students still use them to make decisions about what schools to apply to or attend. So, when my school dropped 17 places, my classmates panicked. I recall one saying, “I picked the wrong school.” Another said, “How am I going to find a job now?” So many people expressed concern about the drop that the dean cleared his schedule for two days to talk to students.

The question of job placement is the exact reason why our ranking dropped. U.S. News had changed its methodology. It now included job placement rates nine months after graduation in its criteria. The rankings shuffled. But some schools didn’t collect, have, or provide this data, so U.S. News estimated for them. Some deans were confident the rankings would revert to the prior year once everyone was up to speed. The next year, nothing changed.

But something else was hidden in the data. According to the organizations that wrote the questions for the bar exam, the test was equally difficult all three years. According to my school’s administration, the classes of 2012 - 2014 were statistically identical. This means they should’ve all had similar pass rates. But 8 out of 100 students (and 4 out of 10 of the African-American students) passed in 2013 who didn’t pass in 2012 and 2014. So, what was different about the class of 2013?

Fear. Fear narrows attention. More precisely, negative affective states with high motivational intensity narrow attention. And in 2013, we were afraid. But somehow, the 2013 results meant that there were students who had learned everything they needed to know in those three years but failed when they were capable of passing. Somehow, fear of not being able to find employment led these students to ignore influences that might have led to their failure. And if they could do it, so could others, even without fear. This realization led me to study the social and psychological roots of success.

What have I learned so far? Our successes and failures are shaped by factors within and beyond our control. We affect others. Others affect us. And we affect ourselves. I hope you’ll join me as I examine these factors.

References

Gable, P. A., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2010). The motivational dimensional model of affect: Implications for breadth of attention, memory, and cognitive categorisation. Cognition and Emotion, 24(2), 322-337. doi: 10.180/02699930903378305

Finucane, A. M. (2011). The effect of fear and anger on selective attention. Emotion, 11(4), 970- 974. doi: 10.1037/a0022574