Mechanisms of Legal Effect: Perspectives from Social Psychology

Public Health Law Research Methods Monograph Series, Forthcoming

36 Pages Posted: 25 Mar 2012 Last revised: 26 Mar 2012

See all articles by Brian Flay

Brian Flay

Oregon State University

Marc Schure

Oregon State University

Date Written: March 22, 2012


Social psychology plays an important role in explicating mechanisms of legal effect. Social psychological theories offer theoretical constructs that help explain the web of psychological and social causes and mediators of intentions and behaviors that legal processes seek to modify. Social psychology pertains primarily to the “Changes in Behavior” mediator in model of public health law research, positing a number of possible causal pathways by which legal systems and policies may influence behavior. From a social psychological perspective, laws and regulations can be classified according to the type of causal pathway by which behaviors are modified, for example, through changing attitudes, normative beliefs or self-efficacy concerning a specific behavior. We outline plausible pathways for many types of laws/regulations, including: 1) prevention and safety laws; 2) environmental exposure regulations; 3) laws regulating availability of health-enhancing and health-inhibiting products and resources; and, 4) “soft” laws that prompt or inform rather than command the ultimate actor (for example, labeling laws).

Given the large number of social psychological theories and the need to structure disparate theories in relation to each other, the theory of triadic influence (TTI) is a comprehensive and integrative model that we use for describing relationships among various theoretical constructs. The TTI posits that laws and regulations influence behavior through multiple causal pathways, from ultimate causes, through distal influences and proximal predictors, all mediated by the proximal influences of attitudes toward, social normative beliefs about, and self-efficacy regarding a particular behavior. Reliable measures for these and other constructs are readily available.

Keywords: public health law research, social psychology, empirical legal studies, mechanisms of legal effect

Suggested Citation

Flay, Brian and Schure, Marc, Mechanisms of Legal Effect: Perspectives from Social Psychology (March 22, 2012). Public Health Law Research Methods Monograph Series, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Brian Flay (Contact Author)

Oregon State University ( email )

401 Waldo Hall
Corvallis, OR 97331
United States

Marc Schure

Oregon State University ( email )

Bexell Hall 200
Corvallis, OR 97331
United States

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