Legal Knowledge, Belief, and Aspiration

70 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2017 Last revised: 7 Apr 2019

See all articles by Arden Rowell

Arden Rowell

University of Illinois College of Law

Date Written: March 29, 2019


The assumption that people know what the law is underlies countless legal prescriptions, and the presumption of legal knowledge plays a central role in many modern legal theories about what law should seek to do. Yet despite the practical and theoretical importance of legal knowledge, there is a surprising dearth of empirical research either on what laws laypeople know, or why—if they get the law wrong—they might mistake it. As a result, even modest empirical contributions about what people know about the law, and when and why they get it wrong, can pay substantial dividends. This piece presents such a contribution: a simple survey of 869 Americans in six states, asking about ten of their own state laws: what they believed those laws to be, and what they thought those laws should be. It finds that people often do not know the laws under which they live—even when they themselves believe those laws to be important. It also finds that, when people’s beliefs about the law are inaccurate, they tend to get the law wrong in a predictable direction. More specifically, people seem to assume that the law reflects their aspirations for it: that the law already is whatever they believe it should be. In some cases, the effect of this wishful thinking is so strong that it is possible to predict people’s beliefs about what the law is better by knowing what they think a legal rule should be, than by knowing what the legal rule in fact is. The result is a tendency towards legal fantasy, where people assume laws reflect their preferences even when they do not. Because the extent and conditions of legal knowledge are so understudied, these results generate a number of implications for legal theory, and a plethora of additional questions that deserve further study.

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 Knowledge, Belief, and Aspiration (March 29, 2019). 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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