Robert MacCoun

Robert MacCoun
Robert MacCoun (Photo by Jennifer Paschal)

Robert MacCoun has had a unique view of some of the most dramatic cultural shifts in American thinking over the course of his career—through the lens of a social psychologist engaged in public policy analysis.  He recalls his work on President Clinton’s 1993 task force looking into military unit cohesion if gays and lesbians served openly in the military. “In our meetings with military officers, the idea was just unthinkable to them—they found the very notion that homosexuals would be serving in the military alongside them appalling,” says MacCoun.

“What struck me was how many of these officers insisted that they had never known a gay person.” Despite the task force’s conclusions, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was introduced.  “We showed that this was a very low-risk policy change, that it wouldn’t have an effect on the military in any notable way. But we had no influence over them at all.”

Fast-forward to 2010, when MacCoun once again served on the task force evaluating the issue, this time for the Obama administration, and the change was striking.  

“Emotions had settled down,” he says. “And everyone made a point of saying that they had no problem with the issue personally. I realized the culture had changed dramatically.” Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed and, four years on, the policy of non-discrimination has apparently had no ill effects on military culture. “Our arguments hadn’t changed much in the intervening 17 years. But the culture had. And we were able to point to data from countries like Israel and Canada and Britain that had made the change successfully. That helped too.”

Since the start of his career at the RAND Corporation in 1986, where he was a behavioral scientist at the Institute for Civil Justice (working with Deborah Hensler) and the Drug Policy Research Center, MacCoun’s work has been as broad as it is deep.  He is a social psychologist and public policy analyst who has published on a variety of topics including illicit drug use and policy, judgment and decision making, citizens’ assessments of fairness in courts, social influence processes, and bias in the use and interpretation of research evidence.  On the surface, his research programs—on drugs, on torts, on child support, on military cohesion—may seem fairly unrelated to each other.  What links them together is an analytical approach to research that intersects where human behavior, culture, policy—and law—come together.

“I’m a very interdisciplinary kind of guy. I’m drawn to the intersections of different fields,” he says.

MacCoun first began teaching while he was on the faculty at the RAND Graduate School of Policy Studies and then spent 21 years on the faculty at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. His research often touches on legal and policy issues and, though not a JD, he was invited to join Berkeley Law in 1999 and held a joint appointment for the remainder of his tenure. 

Interdisciplinary teaching is as important to MacCoun as interdisciplinary research.

He has co-taught with faculty in disciplines as diverse as political science and philosophy, notably in a course at Berkeley called Sense and Sensibility and Science.  “It was part of an effort there called the ‘Big Ideas’ program, which introduced courses that cut across departments. So I taught this one with Saul Perlmutter, the Nobel laureate in physics, and John Campbell, a philosopher, and we looked at the proper authority for science in a democratic society. We had a physicist, a philosopher, and a psychologist. It was wonderful. I think if we could have had one more person, we would have gone with a poet.”

And MacCoun doesn’t shy away from looking at controversial issues. Drug legalization, needle exchange, tort reform, gays in the military. Bias and politics in the conduct and use of policy-relevant research is a topic that he’s particularly close to. “Working on hot-button topics, I’m used to accusations that I’m biased, and I see bias in other people,” he says. “It comes with the territory.  So I’ve done a lot of writing and research on how bias creeps into social science and what we might do about it.”

MacCoun describes his ideology as empiricism. “People try to figure out my opinion and they get frustrated. They read my articles and ask ‘what do you really think’ because they can’t find a definitive endorsement on topics either way,” he says

This approach has been particularly frustrating to people on both sides of the drug legalization effort. “In my book about the drug legalization debates, Drug War Heresies, I don’t come to a verdict about whether drugs should or shouldn’t be legalized. It’s not that I’m afraid to—in the City of Berkeley I probably would have been canonized if I gave a ringing endorsement of legalization. But this is a genuinely complex issue. There are trade-offs. And that frustrates some people.”

This is another area where he has witnessed a dramatic transformation in public perception and acceptance of a hot-button issue. 

“It’s no longer about should we legalize marijuana—it is largely decriminalized,” he says. “It’s now about commercialization. It’s about a massive, new, for-profit industry that is already advertising candies and cola with THC in them. This is going to be a monster if we don’t figure out early on how to regulate it.”

How should marijuana be taxed? Should it be by the weight or type, like alcohol, or would it make more sense to regulate it by potency, by THC content? How should it be sold? In co-ops, in stores, in members-only clubs?  “Given the rapidity of changing attitudes on this topic, we need to stop debating ‘should we legalize’ and start debating ‘how are we going to legalize’ so that we do get it right.” 

A course MacCoun will be teaching in the spring will challenge students to design a better regulatory regime for marijuana. They will examine the two states that have recently commercialized it, Colorado and Washington, to learn from the mistakes made there, exploring the issues from multiple angles—public health considerations, state budget, federal/state conflict issues. 

In addition to classroom study, MacCoun is deep into research he is undertaking for Vermont, where policymakers want to get ahead of the issue by analyzing the implications of marijuana legalization for their state.  Again, it’s all about interdisciplinary work. “So, on a recent conference call, we had an engineer who’s trained in operations research, two economists, and me—a psychologist,” he says.  “To study a topic like this, you just have to put together big teams. I hope the research from this class will be useful to the California debate, which may heat up as the 2016 election approaches.”

While this debate and others do indeed heat up, MacCoun calms down in his off-hours with music—jazz mostly. “I’ve played jazz guitar for about ten years,” he says. He was a rock guitarist in his youth, but set it aside for years. “I decided I missed playing, especially with other people. So I took up the challenge of learning jazz guitar, which is intellectually engaging because you need to internalize music theory but then transcend it.” For the past six years, he has played at least once a month with a small group in restaurants in the East Bay and hopes to find similar groups in his new home.  “It’s just so much fun. When I’m playing, I don’t think about work or anything else.”