Brief book review – Advanced Introduction to Law and Psychology

Tom Tyler, 2022, Edward Elgar Publishing, 252 pages

Prof Tom Tyler (Yale Law School) is a familiar name for students of regulation. His 1990 book Why People Obey the Law is a central work in the canon of regulatory scholarship.

In that book, he challenged the traditional deterrence understanding of regulation—that is, the idea that people comply because they fear the consequences of non-compliance, such as penalties or imprisonment. Instead, Tyler evidenced that many people comply when they believe law and regulation are legitimate and respect the authorities that introduce them.

In his recent book, an Advanced Introduction to Law and Psychology, Tyler provides a broad overview of state of art in the field of law and psychology. Whilst the book uses examples mainly from the USA legal system, with a strong focus on the court system, it has relevance for regulatory scholarship and regulatory practice around the globe.

The book is a welcome addition to the rapidly growing literature on psychology (including behaviour) and law (including regulation). Where much of the literature explores how limited cognition explains people’s failure to comply or act in their own best interest (let’s call it the ‘demand side of regulation’), Tyler’s book discusses how it affects the ‘supply side of regulation’. It seeks to understand why, how, and with what consequences limited cognition affects legal systems (including regulatory systems) and legislators (including regulators).

With the risk of oversimplifying Tyler’s rich discussion, the most relevant insights from the book for regulators boil down to three points:

  1. Regulators (and other people in positions of authority) are often not aware of their own biases and prejudices. Psychological research indicates that experts (such as regulators) are too confident about their capabilities and knowledge to influence the uncertainties they face. Tyler stresses the importance of (ongoing) education of regulators “about their biases” so that they become aware of these and will be able “to put them aside so that they do not influence their decisions” (p.72).
  2. Structural biases in regulatory systems may present regulators with one-sided or sometimes fully flawed information and facts to base their decisions on. At the same time, regulators (and other people in positions of authority) are often not aware of the quality and biases of the evidence they use to make decisions about (non-)compliance and its consequences. Tyler calls for a shift towards “an evidence-based culture [that] emphasizes collecting empirical data on structural problems and using it to make proactive efforts to redesign institutions” (p. 10).
  3. As an overarching solution to both issues, Tyler highlights the value of implementing protocols for making (regulatory) decisions. Protocols can help increase neutrality and accountability in decision-making and use high quality and bias-free evidence. For example, psychological research indicates that human error can be reduced by “requiring decision-makers to provide a justification for their decisions, since accountability promotes better decision-making, as does the use of some form of checklist or guidelines” (p. 18).

To conclude, the book is more than just an (advanced) introduction to law and psychology. It provides hands-on suggestions for regulators striving for excellence. But, of course, to fully understand the impact of limited cognition on regulatory systems, more empirical research along the lines that Tyler suggests is needed.

Disclaimer In these brief book reviews, I discuss classic and contemporary books that make up the canon of regulatory scholarship (or help undertake regulatory scholarship). I focus on their central ideas or core notions and aim to keep the reviews to around 500 words. Unfortunately, this implies I must sacrifice a considerable amount of detail from the books reviewed.

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