My goal is to discuss the findings of recent research exploring why people obey the law. I am a psychologist and will focus directly on microlevel issues concerning the psychology of the person. In particular, I will explore research examining naturally occurring attitudes, values, and behaviors. I will do so by considering studies based upon interviews with citizens.
I want to make four basic points. The first is that it is difficult to enforce the law using only the threat of punishment. Authorities need the willing, voluntary compliance of most citizens with most laws, most of the time. Second, such voluntary compliance is linked to judgments about the legitimacy of authorities and the morality of the law. Third, public views about the legitimacy of legal authorities are linked to judgments about the fairness of the procedures through which those authorities make decisions. Finally, an important element in procedural justice judgments involve evaluations of the manner in which authorities treat citizens. Taken together, these findings suggest that an important component of the effective exercise of authority involves non-instrumental issues. By including such non-instrumental concerns in the study of compliance with the law we can more completely understand the dynamics of obedience with social authorities.
Tyler, T. R. (1997). Procedural fairness and compliance with the law. Revue Suisse D Economie Politique et de Statistique, 133, 219-240.