“I Am Moral, But You Are Deterred”: Differential Attributions About Why People Obey the Law

Authors

  • Catherine A. Sanderson,

    Corresponding author
    1. Amherst College
      Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Catherine Sanderson, Department of Psychology, Campus Box 2236, Amherst College, Box 5000, Amherst, MA 01002-5000. E-mail: casanderson@amherst.edu
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  • John M. Darley

    1. Princeton University
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  • We wish to acknowledge the contributions of Allison Baer, Jill Blettner, Cynthia Duarte, Jennifer Kotwicki, and Darren Yopyk in conducting this research; and discussions with Robert Boeckman, Bart Hollander, and Tom Tyler in conceptualizing this research. Portions of this research were presented at the 1996 Eastern Psychological Association Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Catherine Sanderson, Department of Psychology, Campus Box 2236, Amherst College, Box 5000, Amherst, MA 01002-5000. E-mail: casanderson@amherst.edu

Abstract

This research examined the different attributions that individuals make for law-abiding behavior by different people. Experiment 1 reveals that individuals believe that they and other highly moral people are motivated to obey laws because of internal reasons (e.g., laws reflect valued rules and moral behavior), whereas they believe that criminals are motivated by external reasons (e.g., fear of punishment). However, Experiment 2 shows that even some criminals are seen as motivated to obey laws regarding particular types of crimes because of internal factors. Experiment 3 replicates these general findings using a between-subjects design. Finally, Experiment 4 shows that individuals believe that they are motivated to obey laws regarding minor transgressions (e.g., speed limits) for both internal and external reasons. Discussion focuses on the implications of these findings for both psychological theory and social policy.

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