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Welcome to the website for the research project "The Symbols of Judicial Authority: An Empirical and Theoretical Assault on an Ancient Hypothesis." The site contains information about each investigator involved in the project, descriptions of our 3 pilot studies and the results from each of these studies. Use the links above to move to one of those sections.

Below is a summary of our project. We have a proposal pending with the National Science Foundation to build on the positive results from our pilot studies. Click Here to read the complete proposal.


How is it that the U.S. Supreme Court is capable of getting most citizens to accept its rulings even when they disagree with the Court? This is a question that has motivated decades of social science research. Bits and pieces of the process of acquiescence (the "legitimacy conferring process") have become better understood, as, for instance, in the "positivity theory" advanced by Gibson and Caldeira. What is missing from this research is a clear specification of the micro-level processes involved when citizens learn of a Supreme Court decision with which they disagree, and decide how to react to the decision.

This project investigates citizen acquiescence and attitude change with the assistance of three bodies of theory: Legitimacy Theory, Positivity Theory, and the Theory of Motivated Political Reasoning. Legitimacy theory posits that legitimate institutions are capable of inducing acquiescence among citizens. Positivity theory suggests that exposure to judicial decisions has a positive effect on citizens (i.e. persuades them), even with disagreeable decisions. Positivity theory identifies judicial shirking and the symbols of legal authority as the sources of this effect. The Theory of Motivated Political Reasoning explains how non-conscious stimuli (e.g. judicial symbols) can affect the reasoning of ordinary citizens, providing the micro-level underpinning for the effects of exposure to the judiciary that is addressed by Positivity Theory. Because symbols influence citizens in legitimacy-enforcing ways, the connection between attitudes and acquiescence posited by Legitimacy Theory is both supported and explained.

The specific process we investigate in this project the influence of legal symbols on citizens is an ancient one; yet rigorous empirical research on the topic is sparse. Using a research design employing lab experiments and a general population survey, this project addresses the role of judicial symbols the robe, the gavel, the cathedral-like court building in persuading ordinary citizens to acquiesce to disagreeable court decisions. Our pilot studies have discovered that the mere exposure to symbols of judicial power increases the likelihood of acquiescence. Additional analysis reveals that the effects of judicial symbols vary with factors such as the intensity of initial policy attitudes, knowledge of the judiciary, independent measures of institutional support for the Supreme Court, and (intriguingly) whether the subject was born in the U.S. Our pilot studies clearly demarcate a pathway toward understanding legal symbols. In short, this project will (1) carefully calibrate the symbolic stimuli for our experiments, including specifying whether there is anything unique about the symbols of law, and whether some sub-groups tend to view legal symbols as threatening and negative rather than as empowering and positive; (2) develop and test a set of experiments designed to understand how symbols interact with pre-existing attitudes and beliefs to create attitude change and behavioral acquiescence: (3) examine this process across various political institutions; and (4) test the processes by which symbols are influential within a large, nationally representative survey. (A fourth step in this research agenda is contemplated in which we would test the theory in an actual legal context but that step is not part of this proposal.)

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