Do Law Titles Affect Their Favorability and Memorability? An Empirical Analysis of Tactically Titled Statutes
60 Pages Posted: 10 Feb 2022 Last revised: 11 Nov 2022
Date Written: February 3, 2022
For the last fifty years, Congress has embraced a tactical approach to naming its legislation. In that span, a distinctly American lawcraft has emerged, with official short titles frequently taking the form of acronyms (e.g., the USA PATRIOT Act), victim names (e.g., Megan’s Law), or other evocative phrasings (e.g., the Ryan White CARE Act). What was once mundane and routine has become yet another opportunity for political messaging. At their best, tactical titles may be cute, clever, or even moving, but they still fail to provide useful insights about their underlying measures. It is hardly surprising, then, that they have become an object of scorn or ridicule, with scholars, commentators, and occasionally legislators calling for measures to curb the practice.
If tactical titles lack the power to change the likelihood of a law’s passage, then we might be able to disregard the phenomenon as a silly, if trivial, pastime. But what if titles have the power to manipulate people’s opinions of the laws so named? What if titles give laws an advantage by making them more likely to be noticed or remembered? Then these titles become a threat to democratic principles by harming the electorate’s ability to make informed conclusions about laws and those who support them.
Remarkably, there has never been an empirical study of the effect of tactical titling on Americans. To fill that void, we have designed a novel experiment that isolates the effects of common title types (acronyms, victim names, sponsor names, and generic titles) on favorability and memory. This experimental design further reveals how these effects are moderated or enhanced by the political ideologies of those who read them.
Our results are illuminating. Tactical titles have the power to change people’s opinions of underlying laws. Troublingly, this effect appears to be ideologically asymmetrical: Left-leaning participants’ opinions did not exhibit a titling effect, but Right-leaning participants gave higher ratings to a law with an acronym title and lower ratings when the very same law had a victim-named title. Moreover, the effect was limited to a conservative law; we did not observe it on either a liberal or nonpartisan law. Our results also showed that, regardless of the participant’s or the law’s political leaning, our participants were better at recalling the names of acronym titles than our other title types.
The magnitude of the effect was substantial. Regarding opinion, our results indicated an average shift in the favorability of a law from a six to a nine on a ten-point scale. As to memory, participants were nearly twice as likely to remember the names of laws with acronym titles than generic titles.
These findings dovetail with political psychology research on negativity and in-group biases. And most importantly, they provide empirical justification for measures that seek to put an end to tactical titling.
Keywords: Empirical Legal Studies, Statutes, Legislation, Legisprudence, Congress, Experimental Jurisprudence, Law and Psychology, Law and Sociology, Law and Behavior, Politics
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