Assistant professor Sophie van der Zee (34) completed her psychology studies on willpower at Utrecht University. In the first year, one student after another dropped out before February to avoid having to pay the full tuition fee, but Van der Zee persisted even though she was not enthralled by the subject. “If I start something, I want to finish it, even though I did not see myself working in psychology for the rest of my life. Incidentally, I would not recommend this trait to anyone. It won’t make you any happier.”

Her mother  who worked as a professor of psychology at Utrecht University  saw Van der Zee struggling with her choice of study. She advised her to take a course in Legal Psychology given by Willem Albert Wagenaar at Studium Generale. “I followed her advice as any well-behaved daughter and student would do,” says Van der Zee. “Now, I can’t speak highly enough of Studium Generale. I remember attending Wagenaar’s first lecture. I was sold. Afterwards, I walked up to him and said: ‘I want to be you later. How can I do that?’”

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She read the book The popular policeman and other cases in which Wagenaar and Hans Crombag draw on fifteen cases from Dutch judicial practice to show how knowledge of psychology is relevant in the courtroom. One of the cases took place at the police station in Amsterdam: a homeless man came to the station several times during a single day. The police could do nothing for him and removed him again and again. The last time, an officer stood in the doorway so that the homeless man could no longer enter. Something happened between the man and the officer which caused the homeless man to fall headfirst onto the pavement and he eventually died. The question was whether the officer should be prosecuted.

Seven witnesses agreed that the police officer had pushed the man too hard. The eighth gave testimony that cleared the officer. They were the only witness who did not speak Dutch and therefore presumably did not know that the victim had died. “This is where psychology comes in: we have all kinds of biases in our thinking. We think that major consequences must also have major causes although that is not necessarily the case. We find it hard to accept that someone dies just because of an accident.”

“Knowledge of human behaviour is important in a court case where lives are made or broken. Legal studies often do not incorporate psychology or statistics into their curriculum, whereas psychologists have studied people for years. This turns out to be very useful in the courtroom,” says Van der Zee.  This is an insight that I gained from Wagenaar, thanks to Studium Generale and to The popular policeman and other cases.”

Reading behaviour

Main motivation: “Relaxation is what basically motivates me. Two other reasons: I want to know how a story ends, and I want to finish something. It’s almost like ticking off a to-do list.”

Favourite genre: Thrillers and non-fiction

The last book she read: War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans

Number of books per year: 40-60.  “Also due to sleepless nights as a young mother.”

From pupil to teacher

On Wagenaar’s advice, van der Zee took a master’s degree in Psychology and Law at Maastricht University. When she landed in the south of the Netherlands, she discovered that she had already read almost all of the course material in her spare time. “Suddenly I was no longer a mediocre C student, but someone who got As,” she recalls. She graduated cum laude.

“An inspiring teacher can make all the difference for students between their years of drifting and actually finding a vocation,” says Van der Zee. It is one of the reasons she became a researcher and lecturer at the university. What Wagenaar was for her, she hopes to be for students. “Even if it is just one.”

Two years ago, she gave a lecture at the Studium Generale in Utrecht in her capacity as a psychologist and behavioural economist. On the very same stage where Willem Albert Wagenaar had stood years ago, Van der Zee herself was now advocating legal psychology. Only the bow tie that Wagenaar wore in 2006 was missing. “Maybe I’ll try that later on in my career,” she joked on stage.

Sophie van der Zee is an assistant professor at the Erasmus School of Economics. She combines her background in psychology with computer science to do research into safety and human behaviour. She wrote her PhD dissertation at Lancaster University in England and then worked as a postdoc student at the University of Cambridge.

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