Popular Science

By Adam Alter

The essence of good science writing is ... the sharing of general approaches to perceiving the world.

The first thing I learned in law school is that law school is not for learning the law. My decorated professor explained that we would spend twenty hours each week reading and discussing cases—and that very few of those cases would ever again figure in our lives as lawyers. Those hours were not wasted, but it was not because they filled our heads with legal content that they were useful. It was because they slowly formed us into the kinds of minds that make successful lawyers.

My professor was right. I began to speak, think and consume information like a lawyer. When I joined a large corporate law firm as a paralegal, I was coiled and ready to be lawyerly. Not a single one of the dozens of cases we discussed for thousands of hours appeared again, but that didn’t matter. I was primed to read dozens of new cases quickly and efficiently, and to distill thousands of pages of judicial content into a rich concentrate of legal argument.

Eventually I left the law firm and embarked on a new life. I started and finished a doctorate in social psychology, began an academic job in psychology and marketing, and wrote a book. The book, written for people who are interested in human psychology but have no background in the subject, consumed me for three years. I wanted to share with other people the ideas that had kept my mind occupied and entertained for more than a decade. I created a document entitled “Book Plan” and filled page after page with references to my favorite experiments—first dozens and then hundreds. “Book Plan” became a catalogue of the content that populated my thoughts, the closest thing to a facsimile of my academic mind. My aim, I decided, should be to transfer as much of that information to the reader who happened to pick up my book.

Read the full article as published in The Point.

Adam Alter is an Associate Professor of Marketing with affiliated appointment in the Psychology Department.