Callan and Kay: The Law’s Relationship to Self-Interested, Competitive, and Trusting Behavior

In “Associations between Law, Competitiveness, and the Pursuit of Self-Interest,” Mitchell Callan and Aaron Kay present and analyze their research regarding whether the existence of law, “implicitly fosters the assumptions that people are self-interested, competitive, and cannot be trusted.” (2)

They outline two primary reasons why individuals may associate the law with notions of self-interested and competitive behavior:

  • Firstly, these associations may occur because of “legal socialization,” which is essentially gaining understanding how our legal system and laws function in society. This understanding may come to us through exposure to popular culture. As the guiding principle of our legal system is that, “the best way of eliciting the truth of a controversy is through confrontation [e.g. plaintiff vs. defendant] and the zealous pursuit of one’s self interests,” Callan and Kay contend that some people associate concepts of pursuing self-interest and competitiveness with the law. (2)
  • Secondly, Callan and Kay argue that the very fact the law has to exist at all leads some people to perceive other’s behavior differently (i.e. as self-interested in nature rather than cooperative), which can impair feelings of trust between individuals.

Legal Socialization, Adversarialism, and Pop Culture

The authors maintain that because of the adversarial nature of our legal system, people tend to view it as a zero-sum game where judging one sides arguments as true inevitably means losses for the other side.  It seems reasonable that people may perceive this sort of system as zero-sum game when its foundation appears to be getting to the truth through zealous competition between the two parties. They suspect that people’s exposure to popular media, and the possible legitimization of the adversarial system in media where certain lawyers fight within the system for just causes, will lead some individuals to look positively upon self-interest and competition in the legal realm as a means of pursuing justice and truth.

The Effects of Legal Monitoring and Punishments on Feelings of Cooperation and Trust

The mere existence of a legal system that exercises control over the individual and punishes her when she stays from the bounds of what the system has deemed acceptable may lead individuals to think that people are inherently self-interested persons who will do wrong if not kept in check. The authors believe there is a tendency in the law to account for humans as incapable of doing right when left alone and foster the belief that justice can only come about through the law.  Callan and Kay contend that these tendencies in law may lead individuals to be more wary of trusting others and more inclined to be skeptical of others’ motives in their social interactions.

The Experiments

Through five different studies, Callan and Key sought to determine whether thinking of the law would, in everyday situations, affect people’s level’s of self-interested and competitive behavior and whether it would make people less inclined to trust others. They found that a significant portion of individuals, “(a) considered unknown social actors less trustworthy and perceived the situation as more competitive, (b) became more against a policy issue when it conflicted with their normative self-interest and (c) behaved more competitively during a prisoner’s dilemma game when they believed that social relations were basically zero-sum in nature.” (25)

In one experiment, Callan and Kay exposed participants to a word search puzzle containing legal terms in order to prime them with legal words (thus getting them thinking about the law). With the participants apparently thinking about the law, Callan and Kay then asked the participants to engage in a Prisoner’s Dilemma game with a person in another room where there were two possible responses. If the participants selected response one and the other person did as well, both received three points. If a participant chose response one and the other chose response two, the participant would get zero and the other would get three (and vice versa). And if both the participant and the other person chose response two, then each would get zero point. The participants did not know that they actually were not playing with another person in the other room. They also did not know that whatever they picked, the other “person” would mirror their response. Thus, “competition was irrational and unproductive.” (24) After the game, the participants were asked to respond to a questionnaire that tested whether they thought social relationships were essentially zero sum games. What Callan and Kay found was that, “in the context of this PD game, 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)


Callan and Key’s research is interesting, but, as they seemingly acknowledge, it seems to leave large questions unanswered. What are the differences between individuals that lead only a certain percentage to become more competitive, self-interested, and less trusting when associating their tasks with the legal system? Why do some individuals exhibit no changes in behavior when associating their tasks with the legal system? Does the imposition of law make people act in more self-interested and competitive fashions frequently in their everyday lives, and if so, what is the remedy? More law? Would people get along better and be more trusting with less law in some cases? If we stopped looking at people as so self-interested and were more inclined to see them as willing to cooperate, would our social interactions be more productive or fulfilling? It seems that a great deal more research needs to be done to find answers to these broad societal and interpersonal questions.

One Response to Callan and Kay: The Law’s Relationship to Self-Interested, Competitive, and Trusting Behavior

  1. […] From Law and Mind: “The Law’s Relationship to Self-Interested, Competitive, and Trusting Behavior” […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: