Law, Belief, and Aspiration

47 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2017 Last revised: 16 Mar 2017

Arden Rowell

University of Illinois College of Law; Harvard Law School

Date Written: January 20, 2017


This project examines the relationships between what the law is, what people believe the law to be, and what people aspire for the law to be. It takes seriously the possibility that people do not know perfectly what the law is, and tests the hypothesis that people’s beliefs about the law may sometimes be better explained by people’s aspirations for what the law should be, rather than what the law actually is.

To test this hypothesis, the paper presents the results of a survey asking 869 Americans in six states (California, Florida, Illinois, Texas, Montana, and South Dakota) about ten of their own state laws: what they believed those laws to be, and what they thought those laws should be. The study then compares people’s reported beliefs to their aspirations, as well as to the actual state rules.

Topics included in the study were: the death penalty, abortion waiting periods, handgun waiting periods, misprision of a felony, state income tax, drone deliveries, medical malpractice damage caps, state constitutional right to a clean environment, texting and driving, and at-will employment contract rules.

The study finds that people often do not know the laws under which they live, even when they themselves believe those laws to be important. For example, 1 in 6 participants held inaccurate beliefs about whether their state has a state income tax; 1 in 4 participants held inaccurate beliefs about whether their state has a death penalty; 1 in 3 held inaccurate beliefs about whether their state has a waiting period for purchasing handguns; and fewer than half of participants knew whether they are legally required to report felonies. Somewhat disturbingly, participants were no more likely to know the law when they indicated that the topic was important, although they were more likely to know the law accurately when they felt confident about their knowledge.

Furthermore, when people’s beliefs about the law are inaccurate, they tend to assume that the law reflects their aspirations for it: that the law already is whatever they believe it should be. In some cases, this wishful thinking is so strong that aspiration exceeds the actual rule in predicting people’s belief — or in other words, you can sometimes predict people’s beliefs about what the law is better by knowing what they think the rule should be, than by knowing what the rule in fact is.

These findings have important implications for developing behavioral models that predict how people will respond to law: for example, behavioral theorists might question whether anyone is deterred by a law that no one knows. The findings also points to normative and democratic concerns: where citizens rely on a mistaken belief that their aspirations are already reflected in the law, they may not push for legal change, and even widely-held aspirations might fail to find reflection in the law.

Keywords: Perception of Law, Motivated Cognition, Biased Assimilation, Fake News, Wishful Thinking, Cognitive Dissonance, Legal Knowledge, Mistaken Belief, Behavioral Law and Economics, Access to Justice, Death Penalty, Abortion Waiting Period, Handgun Waiting Period, Texting and Driving, State Income Tax

JEL Classification: K00, K1, K10, K11, K12, K13, K14, K19, K31, K32, K34, K40, K41, K42

Suggested Citation

Rowell, Arden, Law, Belief, and Aspiration (January 20, 2017). Available at SSRN:

Arden Rowell (Contact Author)

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States

Harvard Law School

1557 Massachusetts Ave
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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