Callan & Kay, on “Law, Competitiveness, and the Pursuit of Self-Interest”

The fact that law affects behavior is a truth too obvious to warrant comment.  So much of what we do all the time is in order to comply with some applicable law or another.

Consider: (see captions)

The legal system under which these drivers operate clearly has an effect on their behavior.  But the effects that law has on behavior are not always so obvious.  In, “Associations between Law, Competitiveness and the Pursuit of Self-Interest,” Callan and Kay argue that not only does “thinking about law” — where ‘thinking’ does not mean consciously thinking — lead to more competitive and self-interested attitudes, but that such thinking also produces, under some conditions, more competitive and self-interested behavior.

Consider this somewhat antiquated photograph of the United State’s Supreme Court:

Looking at this photo may “bring to mind” various thoughts and feelings for different people.  And from moment to moment those thoughts and feelings may change quite a bit even for a single person.  But if Callan and Kay are correct, looking at this picture for most of us produces more competitive and self-interested thoughts (and perhaps behavior) — even though, for most of us, our occurrent, consciously accessible attitudes never reveal any such shift.  (Thus providing additional evidence for view that the ability of “introspection” to reveal the inner workings of the mind is quite limited, contra Descartes who considered nothing more clear and certain than the contents of his own mind as provided by introspection.)

This effect occurs, they argue, because of associations we make between law, on the one hand, and competition and the pursuit of self-interest, on the other.  They surmise that the structure of our legal system (e.g. its adversarial nature) as well as popular portrayals of law (in mass media) create a “legal consciousness” which relates our concept(ion) of law to those of competition and self-interest.  Regardless of the reason, however, they have shown convincingly that thinking thoughts about law can, depending on a particular person’s other beliefs, produce self-interested, competitive behavior and “perceptions that others are untrustworthy.” (3). 

Of course, you (the reader) probably don’t believe any of this (because you just looked at that picture of the United State’s Supreme Court).  Nevertheless,  Callan and Kay present solid empirical evidence that (thinking about) law has this effect on our mental state.

However, as Callan & Kay note, behavior has “multiple influences and interactions that are usually involved” and that it “can depend upon various characteristics of the individual perceiver.” (22).  As a result, “activation of the law does not necessarily lead to increased competitiveness, but instead depends upon existing beliefs about the competitive nature of social relations.” (25).  Thus, (thoughts about) law need not bring about competitive and self-interested behavior.  If we can come to see our social situation as less competitive then, even within our adversarial legal system, we can continue to trust and cooperate with our fellow human beings.  But, this is just to raise the question: what factors determine our perceptions of our environment and the nature of other persons.  Depending on the answer to this question, it may not be that easy to bring about the relevant change in information state.

Perhaps a better option would be to change the nature of our legal system and the way that it is portrayed in mass media.  It would be interesting to know the effect of activating a person’s concept of law who is a part of a less adversarial legal system and a culture of fewer (status-quo affirming) cop dramas.  As Callan and Kay note, other ways of organizing a legal system are possible, e.g. for example “inquisitorial systems” where the judge and lawyers work in a more collective fashion in order to determine the relevant facts.  Perhaps such persons – even those who believe that people are basically self-interested and that most situations are zero-sum – would not become less trusting and more competitive (as did the subjects of Callan’s and Kay’s experiments).  Such possibilities are worthy of investigation.

Furthermore, to the extent that the effects of activation remain unchanged, we should proceed with a bit more hesitation before applying (/creating) a legal remedy to (/for) a problem.  Such remedies seem likely to inadvertently encourage single-mindedly self-interested behavior precisely at those moments where compromise and cooperation are most important.  Fortunately, even those who’ve viewed competition and self-interest-qua-motive in the highest regard have typically wished to protect certain relationships — most notably family (and other close, personal) relationships — from those influences.  The proffered reasons for such protection haven’t alluded to these just-discovered, sub-conscious effects, but ultimately these effects may be the most persuasive reason to extend protection to certain of our relationships.  Those who would devise dispute resolution systems — where resolution requires more than merely obtaining a legal judgment — should consider the possibility of employing extralegal mechanisms wherever the effects of competition or distrust are most pernicious. 


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