Legal Rules, Beliefs and Aspirations

49 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2017 Last revised: 24 Feb 2018

See all articles by Arden Rowell

Arden Rowell

University of Illinois College of Law

Date Written: February 24, 2018


There is a surprising dearth of empirical research either on what laws people know, or why — if people get the law wrong — they might mistake it. To address this gap, this paper presents the results of an original empirical study. The survey, administered to 868 participants in six states about ten state laws, was structured to separately measure (1) the formal legal rule in each state, (2) participants’ subjective belief about the law in their state, and (3) participants’ normative aspirations for the law. The results are interesting for several reasons. First, they provide measurements of how well people know each of the ten state laws (including rules on the death penalty, at-will employment, requirement to report felonies, state Constitutional rights, income tax, texting and driving, handgun waiting periods, abortion waiting periods, medical malpractice damage caps, and regulatory limits on drones). These measures of legal knowledge are helpful both to understanding differential rates of knowledge across specific laws, and to informing general accounts of notice and of the expressive power of law. Second, and perhaps even more intriguingly, comparing the three measures allows for an analysis of the way in which people tend to mistake the law. More particularly, the results show that when people mistake a state law, they tended to do so in a predictable direction: participants tended to believe that the law already was whatever they thought it should be, and (in corollary) that the law should be whatever they believed it already was. In some cases, the effect of this hopeful belief was so strong that it is possible to more accurately predict what people believe their state law to be by knowing what they think it should be, than by knowing what the legal rule actually is. These results have important implications both for legal theorists who care about notice — whether for democratic, behavioral, or expressive reasons — and for empiricists who seek to explore how people think about the law.

Keywords: Perception of Law, Motivated Cognition, Biased Assimilation, Optimism, 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, Legal Rules, Beliefs and Aspirations (February 24, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Arden Rowell (Contact Author)

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States

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