Fairness key to police officers gaining civilians’ respect

A recent Yale study shows that when police and other authorities make visible attempts to be fair, civilians are intrinsically motivated to cooperate with them.
A police officer at a traffic stop

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Nobody enjoys being stopped by the police. But civilians who believe the officer interacting with them is attempting to behave fairly are more likely to perceive the officer’s authority as legitimate and cooperate, even if the encounter still results in a citation, suggests a new study coauthored by Yale political scientist Gregory Huber.

The study, recently published in the journal Science Advances, provides the first evidence that visible efforts by authorities to treat people fairly, regardless of whether they result in punishment — or even when an enforcement decisions is based on a mistake — make people intrinsically more motivated to cooperate and comply with the law.

Imagine being pulled over for coasting through a stop sign when you’re certain that you stopped,” said Huber, the Forst Family Professor of Political Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Our findings suggest that if the police officer explains her decision and behaves in a visibly fair manner, then people are more likely to perceive the officer’s actions as legitimate even if the officer is mistaken.”

Identifying how an individual’s perceptions of legitimacy influence their intrinsic, or natural, motivation to comply with authority is challenging because the actions of authority figures, such as police officers, typically also affect people’s extrinsic, or material, motivations, the researchers explained. To illustrate the point, they offer a hypothetical scenario of a neighborhood patrolled by a police officer who pays scrupulous attention to detail and is courteous to the citizens she encounters. Less crime occurs on her beat than in adjacent neighborhoods. Is the crime rate lower because people perceive the officer as fair, which affects their intrinsic motivations to follow the law? Or is it because the officer is effective at identifying and punishing wrongdoers, which implicates the extrinsic motivation to avoid fines or arrests?

To disentangle the two motivations, the researchers devised an experiment based on a public goods game in which participants receive a share of tokens that they can keep for themselves or contribute to a public pot, in which contributions are multiplied and evenly distributed. Contributing is individually costly, but the players are better off collectively if everyone contributes than if no one does. In this way, contributing to the public pot is analogous to following the law. It’s better if everyone obeys the law, but at any given moment, participants might be tempted to break the law and keep their tokens so long as everybody else is compliant.

For the experiment, the researchers divided a sample of 90 university students in the United States into groups of five. In each group, four players were randomly assigned the role of “citizen” and a fifth was randomly assigned as an “authority” responsible for monitoring the others and enforcing the contribution rules. Players in the authority role received incomplete information about the other players’ contributions. They had the option of investing a small or large amount of their tokens to receive more accurate information. A large investment was equally likely to result in information of “high” or “medium” accuracy. A small investment was equally likely to generate “low” or “medium” accuracy.

The authority then chose from four enforcement options: deduct tokens from citizens when (potentially inaccurate) information showed they did not contribute; deduct tokens from citizens when the same information suggested they had contributed; never deduct any tokens; or deduct tokens from everyone.

Each citizen was made aware of the authority’s investment level, mode of enforcement, and the realized accuracy of the information they received. The citizens then decided whether to contribute their tokens to the public pot or keep them for themselves. From their perspective, all the extrinsic factors that could influence their decision were the same. The only variable was the authority’s level of investment in attempting to get better information. This allowed the experiment to focus on the participants’ intrinsic motivation to comply with authority without being complicated by extrinsic factors.

The experiment showed that the authority’s mere attempt to implement a fairer procedure by investing in better information increased the probability that a citizen would contribute to the public good by 10 to 12 percentage points even when the investment didn’t result in a fairer outcome.

We found that an authority’s effort to engage in a fairer procedure, even when it doesn’t pay off, generates greater citizen compliance or cooperation,” Huber said. “Of course, police officers are much more likely to garner cooperation when they are effective in apprehending lawbreakers and protecting the innocent. But a genuine effort to be fair, even if mistakes are made, helps people to perceive law enforcement as legitimate and makes them more likely to comply.”

He addd: “Our results help us understand why certain reforms, for example abolishing racial profiling, might improve compliance with the law even if they are, on face, inefficient. When law enforcement is perceived as biased or unfair, this alone can diminish our willingness to cooperate.”

Erik S. Dickon and Sanford C. Gordon, both of New York University, coauthored the study.

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,