The Situationist

Archive for February 15th, 2011

Law, Competition, Self-Interest

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 15, 2011

Over at the new Law & Mind Blog, several Harvard Law students have been blogging about a chapter by Mitchell Callan and Situationist Contributor Aaron Kay. In the first post on the topic (copied below), 1L student Becky Ding summarizes the chapter (forthcoming in Ideology, Psychology, and Law, edited by Situationist Contributor Jon Hanson).

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In Association between Law, Competitiveness, and the pursuit of self-interest, Mitchell Callan and Aaron Kay discuss how law and the way our legal system functions affect and shape our thinking and interpersonal relations. In particular, it fosters the assumption that people are self-interested, competitive and untrustworthy. Callan and Kay supports their theory through theories and research results from various social cognition studies.

Callan and Kay argue that one reason people associate the law with competition and the pursuit of self-interest is “legal socialization”, the acquisition of attitudes, beliefs and knowledge of the legal system and law. The overarching philosophy of our Anglo-American legal system is that truth is more likely to be exposed from confrontation, competition and each party zealously pursuing their own interests. The “you against me” and “winner takes all” mindset is a common assumption among parties involved in litigation. Aside from contact with legal authorities, process of cognitive and moral development, and instruction from friends and the larger communities, one of the primary means people come to associate the law with self-interest and competition is through the major presence of law in the media. Cultivation theory says that the repetition of images and messages “cultivates” perceptions of social reality. Frequent media portrayals of the legal system encourage “the belief that litigation is a normative means of resolving disputes.”

In addition, Callan and Kay argue that the mere existence of the aspects of our legal system (the police, system of courts, the legal profession, institution for incarceration, the enormous number of laws, etc) appear to support the assumption that people are inherently self-seeking and need to be deterred from doing bad things. As a result, people may be less able to trust one another. Surveillance and sanctioning of social behavior could have counterproductive effects.

In two initial studies, Callan and Kay find that people generally do hold implicit cognitive association between the law and competitiveness. In one study, participants who are subliminally primed with words related to the law complete more word fragments with competition words than participants primed with neutral words. Another study using the Implicit Association Test also supports this finding.

In their third study, they find that people who are subliminally primed with words related to law and are more likely to interpret the actors in an ambiguous situation as more competitive and less trustworthy. In their fourth study, Callan and Kay find that people, upon thinking about the law and the legal system, may become more against a political issue that conflicts with their self-interest. In their final study, Callan and Kay find evidence that priming the law also produces more competitive behavior. The participants who are primed with words related to law act more competitively in a prisoner’s dilemma game, even though competition is irrational and unproductive.

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