Wise Restraints?: Learning Legal Rules, Not Standards, Reduces the Effects of Stereotypes in Legal Decision-Making

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Abstract

Does studying the law reduce bias from stereotypes in legal decision-making? Psychological, psychometric, and jurisprudential theory suggest that the answer depends on the form of the relevant legal doctrine: Learning legal rules, which provide explicit direction as to the correct outcome of a case, should reduce the impact of stereotyping; learning legal standards, which require decision-makers to draw inferences from the facts of a case, should not. The results of 2 experimental studies involving undergraduates and law students provide strong support for this theory. In each, consistent with the predictions of the Stereotype Content Model, participants tended to decide cases for the party that was rated by an independent sample to be associated with stereotypically warmer traits unless the participants had learned legal rules and were deciding cases with facts to which those rules applied. Learning legal standards did not moderate this effect. The findings provide additional support for the distinction between rules and standards in law and can inform the public policy decisions between which is most beneficial.

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