September 17, 2023

A Socio-Cognitive Theory of Regulatory (Non)Compliance Based on the Prevalence of Social Proof

Most of us have joined the crowd to locate our baggage carousel, waited for a taxi without knowing why, or looked for designated smoking areas before lighting up in a new airport—possibly in a foreign country

List of contents

Most of us have joined the crowd to locate our baggage carousel, waited for a taxi without knowing why, or looked for designated smoking areas before lighting up in a new airport—possibly in a foreign country. We often rely on the wisdom of the collective, but sometimes we make mistakes. Our tolerance for ambiguity is always present. It is a variable that depends on others. These situations do not always require conformity to maintain a good reputation. We may justify our behavior by saying “Because everyone else was doing it.”
In the field of social psychology, this tendency to follow others in challenging situations is known as social proof. People expect others to behave better when they agree. Psychology distinguishes social proof from normative social influence, which occurs when people cooperate to gain status or avoid social consequences. Instead, social proof impacts society as a whole. It can lead to imitation and standardization. Without external enforcement, it can surpass societal norms, laws, and customs.
The social impact of legal compliance is studied and analyzed in the literature on law and social norms. However, the literature often ignores the aspect of informational social influence that is not tied to normative values. This is due to the social focus of legal literature. Legal scholars have examined how social “motivations,” such as “self-esteem” or the reinforcement of norms, affect compliance. This article proposes a third factor—a neutral incentive to emulate others—driven by our brain’s cognitive ability to infer from others’ behavior without conscious awareness.
Law enforcement measures aimed at maintaining order in the community address small infractions. This approach recognizes that subjective and influenced perspectives exist. By changing people’s perception, law enforcement promotes compliance. This increases awareness of the social impact on legal compliance rather than simply evaluating it. This aligns with the goals of instrumental aims literature in the field of law. Social choices and perceptions are influenced by laws, and communication between the legal system and society continues. However, the growth of social proof and its impact on legal compliance have not been thoroughly studied in the context of law and society.
To address this gap, this article explores how informational social influence affects legislative knowledge and compliance through cognitive processes. Do individual choices shape dynamic perceptions of legal compliance? Learn about the role of informed social influence in legal compliance. The interpretation of language in a legal context shapes the social meaning of the law. Therefore, this article emphasizes the importance of cognitive awareness of how the context of others’ behavior impacts legal compliance.
Social proof influences our perception of the legal consequences within the framework of the conventional deterrence model, as well as the reputational harm under the social influence model. However, social evidence alone does not explain lawfulness. Legal knowledge is a daily requirement. The literature on regulatory compliance, deterrence, and related topics provides valuable guidance. So, before assuming that “law can change perception,” it is important to consider these factors.
Increasing visual order without addressing procedural fairness may have unintended consequences because we cannot differentiate between procedural and substantive law and the judicial system. Compliance with the law can be indicative of its effectiveness. A law that lacks adequate enforcement will not be followed in a non-compliant society. Moreover, it may give the impression that legal compliance is unnecessary. Individuals who conform value the law. Understanding how social evidence influences legal compliance can assist lawmakers in developing social proof for specific legislation or the law in general, thereby promoting voluntary compliance.
Our brains filter and evaluate information by observing the behavior of others, regardless of their reasons for obeying the law. Both information and normative incentives play a role. The behavior of others influences our decision-making and the power to change our own behavior.

The Impact of Legal Uncertainty on Decision Making Processes
Despite having experience and education in the field of law, many professors of economic law may not fully understand their rights and obligations under taxation law or the proper procedure for submitting a court application under the criminal code. Even legal experts themselves often neglect to read the “Terms of Use” before agreeing to them on websites. It is considerably challenging to incorporate the ever-changing interpretations of the law through court rulings, government actions, legislative changes, and legal expertise. Legal writing typically assumes that the general population has a good understanding of the law.
Legal literature assumes that the law is “widely known and understood.” Take, for example, the neo-classical deterrence model. According to this model, an individual should be aware of: (a) the law and its interpretation at the time of the act; (b) the likelihood of getting caught; (c) the length and cost of a trial; (d) the probability of being convicted; and (e) the potential severity of the punishment. This knowledge is necessary for a rational decision regarding whether or not to commit a crime. However, is the assumption of “complete legal knowledge” a simplification similar to the assumption of “perfect information” in economics? In Section B(I) of this article, we present empirical evidence on the public’s understanding of the laws that directly impact them. It is clear that compliance or non-compliance with the law cannot solely be explained by legal knowledge. The second part of this section explores how our brains rely on social proof, or the behavior of others, as a proxy for information in situations where information is imperfect. Experimental research suggests that this also applies to legal situations.

Do We Have Knowledge of the Laws That We Obey: Compliance with Legal Requirements?
Understanding the law is crucial in influencing behavior. It is commonly believed that having legal knowledge empowers individuals and deters them from engaging in illegal activities. However, the extent to which states disseminate legal information and promote legal awareness is often overlooked. Assessing legal awareness is essential for bringing about behavioral change. Many assume that compliance or non-compliance with the law is a deliberate act of breaking the law. For example, when drivers stop at red lights, it is presumed that they are aware of the law and choose to follow it. However, factors such as the actions of the vehicle in front or cross-traffic may also contribute to their decision.
In 2008, German researchers discovered that only about a third of the participants in their study were aware of the comprehensive workplace harassment legislation that had been approved two years earlier. Another 15% knew about the law but were unfamiliar with its provisions. Similar findings were observed in the US and UK, where most people are unaware of the specific details and processes of the laws. A study conducted on English and Welsh residents’ knowledge of consumer protection and housing laws revealed that the majority of them were unaware of their rights, regardless of whether the legislation applied to them as tenants or homeowners. It was also found that individuals with lower socioeconomic status and immigrants have a lesser understanding of the law. This lack of legal knowledge is problematic, especially considering that governments often utilize legal measures to address socio-economic issues and empower marginalized groups.
Both studies and personal experiences indicate that legal information is not easily accessible to the majority of people whose behavior is influenced by it. In societies with complex regulatory frameworks, those who are subject to the law may misinterpret it. There can be various reasons for this. It could be a deliberate act to avoid cognitive dissonance between one’s personal experiences and the law, particularly when they greatly differ. In some cases, the cost of obtaining accurate knowledge about the law may outweigh the benefits, leading to reasonable ignorance. Additionally, a lack of timely, accurate, and easily accessible information can contribute to this situation.
To understand why people comply or do not comply with the law, it is important to question the assumption that individuals possess complete knowledge of the law. This helps shed light on the motivations behind law compliance or non-compliance. If individuals do not base their decisions on knowledge of the law, then how do they determine whether to follow it? The following section of this article explores regulatory compliance in situations where there is limited access to legal information, focusing on social network behavior.

Making Decisions in the Presence of Imprecise Information A Cognitive Explanation for the Condition
Law is not the only field that faces challenges when it comes to decision-making with limited knowledge. Political science, economics, sociology, and psychology have all explored this topic using different approaches. In order to reach conclusions, it is important to understand how our brains interpret limited information. In 1955, Herbert Simon studied decision theory and introduced the concept of “bounded rationality,” which suggests that our minds use the information and structure of our environment to make the best choices. This understanding of limited information and computational abilities among legal agents helps to explain why societal perspectives on law and enforcement matter. When faced with a lack of comprehensive knowledge, people often rely on the behavior of others to influence their own decisions. This phenomenon, known as “herding behavior,” is seen in various aspects of our lives, such as relying on movie and restaurant reviews or following popular trends in fashion and marketing. When we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations or lacking knowledge, we may choose to imitate the behavior of others as a substitute. This imitation arises from recognizing our own limitations and represents the missing information we seek. In stock markets, for example, herding behavior can be seen as traders believe that others possess secret knowledge. While it may be easier to change our minds based on new information, certain factors like network externalities and route dependencies can make this challenging. This can help explain the volatility and superficiality of fashion and financial booms. Herd behavior is often part of our tacit knowledge, meaning we instinctively know how to mimic rather than understanding the underlying reasons. Our brain uses imitation as a heuristic to solve problems, which can be more resistant to influence from updated knowledge compared to active decision-making.
As individuals, we imitate the behavior of others for obvious reasons. It is a common habit. At its simplest level, this means that observing others following the law will influence our own compliance. The behavior of others in relation to legal norms can impact our perception of its effectiveness, implementation, and definition. Our natural inclination is to mimic others without considering the legality.
Numerous experiments have demonstrated that the social evidence of others complying with the law affects our own compliance. For example, people are more likely to dispose of scrap paper in the trash if they see someone else doing it or if the environment is clean. Similarly, individuals tend to comply with tax regulations better if they believe others in their tax bracket are doing so. If someone else returns a lost wallet, people are more likely to make an effort to do the same. In places where marijuana is illegal, the seriousness with which individuals perceive the dangers of underage drinking or marijuana usage is influenced by social evidence from their peers.
These examples highlight the informative social impact or social proof. Normative social influence may also be present, as one may use certain drugs to “fit in” with a particular group. However, this does not diminish the informational social impact on compliance with the law. Therefore, it can be seen as acceptable to use illegal drugs if there is no risk of legal consequences.
An additional social impact on legal compliance is often overlooked in theoretical debates but emphasized in actual research. The understanding and adherence to the law are not black and white. When poll respondents claim to know about “sexual harassment laws,” does this mean they truly understand what it entails? Studies have shown that most individuals who claim to know a law fill in the specifics based on their own interpretation of what is legal or illegal. For example, a recent study on workers’ understanding of “sexual harassment” under legislation found that personal perspectives and professional social interactions played a crucial role. Similarly, a poll on US family law revealed that people believed “parental responsibility” included matters such as property distribution after the death of a spouse, cohabitation, and marriage. Multiple studies in criminal and employment law have shown that individual perceptions of what the law says align more with societal attitudes and expectations of what it should say, rather than its actual content. The informational and normative data derived from observing others’ behavior helps us comprehend the laws and determines our compliance.
This article somewhat aligns with the concept of deterrence, which suggests that witnessing others’ behavior can influence our judgments. It expands the concept of informational social impact beyond criminal law to policy. However, it is an oversimplification to solely attribute it to social proof. The subsequent section explores social proof in society and applies this principle to legal compliance.

How do we define an individual’s “Social Proof of Legal Compliance”?
Understanding the various elements of “social proof” for an individual is essential in comprehending its impact on adherence to the law and determining the limitations of this theory. It is important to recognize that social evidence should not be utilized to justify an unwarranted confidence in the beliefs of the majority. Different perspectives have varying effects on our cognitive processes. It is crucial to ascertain whose conduct we observe, which behaviors are pertinent in inferring legal information, the amount of evidence required to form opinions and perceptions, and the type of informational social influence that can sway our decision-making. This section outlines the factors to consider when examining social proof explanations for legal compliance.

Group Identities: Which Groups are Significant?
Individual beliefs and perceptions are shaped by legitimate social sources rather than independent verification of real-world facts. This section of the Article delves into the concept of valid social sources. The concept of the “Rules of Persuasion” by Cialdini provides the best explanation: individuals tend to listen to those who share similar views. The initial justification for our actions in this Article is often based on the fact that “everyone else around me was doing it.”
This principle is simple and intuitive. Our minds struggle to comprehend behaviors that we have not witnessed, particularly those that lie outside of our social circle. Numerous experiments support this notion. Studies have shown that young people are more likely to disregard the decisions of elderly individuals. In a research study, it was found that New Yorkers were more inclined to return lost wallets if they knew another New Yorker had done so, as opposed to if a foreigner had. It is crucial to understand that social proof does not necessarily mean blindly believing in the majority. Rather, one’s trusted social network holds more weight.
Each person’s relevant social circle varies as laws and behaviors change. When faced with a decision, an individual will categorize the problem based on its key characteristics, as identified within a specific situation. This categorization helps the individual determine the relevant social group, enabling them to make choices by comparing the popular beliefs of that group. The choice may vary depending on the type of group. For example, the behavior of coworkers influences compliance with workplace dress codes, while the actions of neighbors in the same community impact the decision of whether to separate waste. There is no single monolithic group that holds significance in social proof. In a study on energy usage, families changed their consumption patterns when they were made aware of their neighbors’ energy usage. Regardless of how close-knit a community may be, it is the individual homes that serve as the crucial social group for this decision.
Identities can shift depending on circumstances. Group identification and imitation can even be deliberately induced. Experiments have shown that subtle priming, where the experimenter highlights certain group characteristics, can lead people to imitate or align their behavior with others who share those characteristics, even if they do not strongly identify with the group. In policy discussions, “identity priming” and framing problems through group identities can make individuals more likely to agree or disagree with a particular policy perspective, depending on the appropriate social network for influence. Research indicates that when an identity is established, a group’s interests and behavioral preferences become the relevant benchmark for social proof, even without specifying how policies or laws impact that group.
In experiments, spontaneously formed groups that are randomly selected tend to exhibit a greater inclination to align their behavior within artificial groupings. The creation of group identities encourages imitation, even in the absence of a unified group identity.
Lawmakers and regulators should take into account these nuances of social proof: (a) People tend to look to others who are similar to themselves to form their own perception of the law; (b) the concept of “self” is fluid and varies in different contexts; and (c) different self-identities can be triggered in different situations, leading to completely different behavioral responses, despite the presence of social proof.
This has an impact on adhering to the law. The individuals who evaluate the social indicators of adherence also aid policymakers in allocating resources for adherence. Firstly, transmitting regional information with local instances of successful adherence and enforcement is more likely to be successful than nationwide advertising campaigns, especially in larger countries with diverse populations and stronger group identities. A recent empirical study comparing adherence in weak states demonstrates that states with limited capacity for traditional enforcement can enhance adherence by implementing effective strategies for distributing legal information. Secondly, it reveals that local instances can help disseminate legal knowledge based on our discussion on reference networks. Local adherence and non-adherence, as well as their consequences, affect our perspective in two ways. It reduces ambiguity by providing additional information. Secondly, it alters our understanding based on social proof. Observing more individuals obeying traffic laws in metropolitan areas or other cities does not change one’s viewpoint. If those around a person frequently break the law, explaining the benefits of legal adherence or the risks of non-adherence is less convincing. Does this conversation demonstrate widespread adherence across all identified categories in order to achieve a sense of “everyone is doing so?” How many examples of group adherence are sufficient for “social proof?” What do our brains need in order to form their own opinions about the quantity and quality of “social proof?”

Law of Limited Supply and Access How Many People Must Persuade Us, According to This Heuristic?
Other ways in which our brains make decisions with limited knowledge involve drawing conclusions from small sample sizes. A cognitive error occurs when we assume that a small number of instances represents a larger group, such as the entire population. This article assumes that our limited experiences within our social network are sufficient to determine the effectiveness of the legal system and the value of specific laws, regardless of whether or not most people adhere to them. This assumption may be based on just one instance. Consider how often we hear justifications like “I heard someone did/say…” for our choices. Our ability to generalize from an unrepresentative and limited amount of information leads us to make the leap from “someone/some people are doing it” to “everyone/most people must be doing it”.
Thus, the number of responses we see before imitating others may be very small. Another cognitive limitation of our brains, known as the availability heuristic, plays a role in determining whose behavior and choices influence our perception of what people do. The availability heuristic refers to our tendency to overvalue memories and knowledge that are currently accessible or easily retrievable.
Studies on risk have examined how the availability heuristic influences our judgments. A classic study on risk perceptions found that media coverage of decision-making significantly influenced our perception of risk, acting as an availability heuristic. Even though strokes kill twice as many people, 80% of respondents believed that accidental deaths were more fatal. Similarly, despite asthma causing twenty times more deaths, tornadoes were considered more deadly. And despite diabetes killing four times as many people as accidents, accidents were perceived to be 300 times more likely to cause death. The study found that incidents covered by the media were perceived as more likely to occur. It also suggested that scandals that receive widespread media attention are more likely to be remembered as examples of social proof.
The availability heuristic suggests that we may overlook the likelihood of something happening in favor of the few instances that we remember. In his analysis of terrorism policies, Cass Sunstein referred to this phenomenon as “probability neglect,” arguing that emotionally charged issues drive public mobilization and demand for regulation, even if there are more urgent and relevant policy matters that are less appealing. He viewed this as an example of the availability heuristic. Our emotional engagement with potential neglect victims is heightened because we remember events that evoke various emotions.
Understanding the availability heuristic is necessary for comprehending the theory of social proof. This is because our initial explanation for our behavior, which is often based on a memory or story that we have heard, is more likely to be influenced by something that happened to someone close to us, was widely publicized, or had an emotional impact on us. Both national corruption statistics and a recent personal experience, such as a sibling paying a police officer, can greatly influence an individual’s decision to bribe a traffic warden for not wearing a seat belt. The act of bribing an officer or hearing about it from peers is more likely to shape one’s perception of government officials’ legal responsibility than any data on improving the accountability of legal institutions. Our brain has a tendency to place more importance on individual occurrences rather than statistical possibilities. This presents an opportunity for resource-strapped nations to enhance the perception of better law enforcement by promoting local enforcement efforts. This can be achieved by informing key members of social networks, as these individuals and platforms provide more memorable information compared to traditional legal advertisements. By decentralizing legal knowledge and sharing public examples, compliance can be established. In a balanced and dynamic state, these perceptions can create a self-fulfilling loop in which the perception of the law determines its success or failure, further reinforcing its viewpoint. The following section delves into the cascading influence of social proof throughout society and legislation.

Informational cascades and network effects in a social proof dynamic equilibrium Getting people to change their “perception of law”
This insightful piece elucidates the potential repercussions of individuals engaging in certain actions, as it pertains to our adherence to societal regulations. Furthermore, it posits that such actions often imply the involvement of our close acquaintances or family members, or are based on secondhand information regarding the conduct of others. The article delves into the impact that even a small number of instances where we learn of such behavior can have on the overall compliance or non-compliance with a legal standard, as it triggers a domino effect of information dissemination and influences our collective perception of legal adherence.

Cascades of Information Within a Law
Over time, a sufficient number of individuals will mimic the actions of others if they have a belief in it. This phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophecies arises from initial misinterpretations, leading to the manifestation of reality. The term “self-fulfilling” prophecy was coined by Robert Merton, who illustrated it using the example of informational social influence, specifically the failure of a bank due to clients’ concerns about its decline.
According to the principle of social proof, we are influenced by the actions of others, even in the absence of normative reasons. Unlike academics who analyze patterns retrospectively, most people are unable to observe the collective behavior in real-time or predict which behaviors will dominate their social network. Our decision-making is often based on actions we have witnessed, heard, or read about in similar situations. These experiences, which may not necessarily align with the law, can be shaped by our previous encounters. Apart from the effects of availability heuristic and representational biases, a few actions can significantly impact our perception of societal norms. When we extrapolate the behaviors of a few individuals to represent the opinion of society as a whole and subsequently follow suit, we become social proof for others. If enough individuals extrapolate the choices of a select few around them, this extrapolation becomes reality, thereby demonstrating that the original minority’s decision empirically reflects the majority’s choice within that particular culture.
Uniform behavior encourages the adoption of social proof-based actions. The cognitive inclination to imitate has historically resulted in a homogenous society. This can foster a cyclical pattern of high compliance with inefficient individual behaviors, driven by the initial choices made by a small group of individuals, which in turn triggers a cascade effect. Marketing research often explains fashion trends through the concept of information cascades.
Cass Sunstein and Timur Kuran delved into the exploration of this cascading social effect on regulation. They examined the impact of both informational and normative social influences on the heightened perception of risk associated with certain threats, such as terrorism or illegal immigration, following tragic events. The subsequent focus on allocating state resources towards regulating these relatively less threatening issues while neglecting other pertinent matters was influenced by public discourse. Sunstein and Kuran argued that “public discourse shapes individual risk judgments, risk preferences, and policy preferences; and the reshaped personal variables then transform the public discourse that contributed to their own transformations.” This creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
This article employs this feedback loop to investigate the impact of informational social effects on legal compliance. The initial individual choices to comply or not comply, based on limited instances of compliance or non-compliance, will amplify and strengthen social evidence. In the long run, the perception that the majority of individuals abide by the law will result in self-fulfilling behavior either in favor of or against compliance. Randomized and experimental trials have demonstrated a strong correlation between initial impressions of general compliance and subsequent compliance decisions. This article delves into the intricacies of this common social behavior and explores how it influences compliance through social evidence and information cascades.
Social phenomena require a small number of early adopters to establish widespread behavioral conformity. The inclination to follow the herd can trigger informational cascades, even when the actions of others have no direct impact on one’s own outcomes, with the only externality being the acquisition of information.
In actuality, social learning exhibits network effects, thus our rewards may depend on the number of individuals who adopt the trend. For instance, in the realm of finance, if one were to invest in a company based on the successful portfolio of other investors, it is likely that additional investors would follow suit, resulting in increased prices and profits. The anticipation that others will imitate a trend can either establish or shatter its ability to be replicated.
These network effects frequently arise in situations of lesser legal compliance. It is prudent to adhere to traffic lights. When in an unfamiliar city or as an inexperienced driver, my decision to stop at a red light would rely on the behavior of the first few drivers I encounter or how other drivers acted when I was younger. If they did not stop at the red light, neither would I. I would not expect the driver in front of me to do so either. In fact, in situations requiring coordination, it is more appropriate to obey the people around me rather than strictly adhere to the law. Additionally, availability reinforces itself. As the number of individuals replicating a particular social behavior increases, it becomes evident that there must be a reason behind it. Even without trust in the normative behavior of others, legislation only holds relevance in coordinated settings if others would comply with it. Our brain will adapt its behavior if social evidence contradicts the presumption of compliance. Consider the jaywalking laws in India, the US, France, and Germany. While most nations prohibit jaywalking, pedestrian conduct depends on the behavior of others, and rightly so.
This explanation of legal compliance and the aforementioned case leads to an important observation about the instrumental purposes of laws. Laws serve to convey normative conduct and provide focal points for coordinating behavior within society. They are typically seen as enforceable without the need for standard strategies to change behavior. However, social evidence of lawbreaking is unlikely to motivate cooperation or alter conventional social perspectives. The assumption of non-compliance discourages individuals from being the first to adhere to the law and start a cascade.
There are two approaches to addressing these issues. The first is to utilize standard legal compliance procedures to demonstrate adherence. The second involves assuming that legal compliance is empirically expected. Traditional enforcement mechanisms offer initial evidence of compliance, but new information can alter people’s expectations. Another technique that aids in early compliance with new laws is the empirical assumption that most individuals will obey a new law unless it contradicts their own interests.
Understanding these empirical assumptions is crucial in our discussion on the initiation of compliance cascades through early compliant behaviors. Social proof has the power to shape legal laws and influence the perception of legal compliance.

Information Cascades Throughout the System: Compliance Perception
This article has illustrated how the actions of a few members within a social network can have a far-reaching impact on compliance or non-compliance with regulations. This, in turn, can either encourage or discourage voluntary compliance. However, this perspective is not limited to specific regulations and compliance examples alone. The tendency to generalize from a small sample, known as the law of small numbers, applies to the broader legal system as well. Just as the cascade of information from a few individuals can influence overall compliance, experiences with specific regulations can shape our perception of the legal system as a whole. By observing social evidence, such as people obeying traffic signals, we are more likely to choose to wear seat belts under a new law. Our reaction to a police officer’s request to pull over will also be influenced by the stories and experiences of others in our network, whether it be related to driving under the influence, not wearing a seat belt, or texting while driving.
Within legal systems, social proof can impact two key perceptions: (a) the effectiveness and necessity of legal compliance, which is based on witnessing others adhere to certain rules, and (b) the fairness of legal actors within the system. The perception of procedural fairness and the effectiveness of laws are closely intertwined, as studies have shown that when people perceive different legal actors following proper procedures, they are more likely to view the system as fair and voluntarily comply. To bridge the gaps in legal rule material, individuals rely on their own experiences and those of their peers who possess legal authority.
Research on the impression of local courts among US citizens reveals that those without direct court experience rely on their perception of the government to evaluate their local courts. Without personal experience or knowledge of the legal system, people form their opinions of the courts based on their interactions with government institutions.
Therefore, our cognitive inclination to depend on the behavior of others gives rise to two cascades of regulatory compliance information. One occurs within a single legislation, leading to widespread compliance or non-compliance based on a small set of behaviors. The other cascade occurs across different laws, where social influence shapes behavior in accordance with other regulations. This can create a socio-behavioral loop that either supports or opposes compliance with the law, ultimately influencing the public’s perception of the legal system. The overall view of legal standards and legislation also has an impact on future compliance choices. In this way, informed social influence reinforces individual behavior and overall conformity.
Examining social evidence within this dynamic equilibrium across different rules reveals a significant gap in the existing legal literature on the social impact of information. The visible reduction in neighborhood disorganization has an effect on how crime is perceived. However, this not only affects the individual’s perspective, but also has broader implications.
The perception of the government, legal actors, and the process by the public will also impact deterrence. Most notably, the way society perceives law and compliance during the implementation of new law enforcement practices will shape their interpretation of this information. If law and compliance are viewed negatively due to assumed disorderliness, the use of indiscriminate and aggressive policing methods for the sake of maintaining law and order may undermine the credibility of the police. There is increasing empirical evidence that supports this hypothesis. The explanation of how information spreads across different rules, including procedural and substantive laws, suggests that employing isolated techniques may discourage voluntary compliance. Some scattered empirical data supports this assertion.
The literature on legal socialization highlights the cognitive aspect of legal obedience. Children learn the norms, attitudes, and behavioral models for interacting with the law and legal authorities through their environment. Due to the reinforcing nature of social learning, early perceptions of law and legal authority are particularly emphasized. Research on legal socialization among teenagers also supports the notion that perceptions influence future compliance decisions. The literature on legal socialization and an individual’s interaction with the law also emphasizes the role of society, particularly social proof, in shaping this socialization. The actions of others, including lawful actors, have an impact. Therefore, the cascading effect of legislation and perceived procedural fairness in compliance cascades is crucial.
A recent report from the United Nations recommends “strengthening the rule of law through education.” It advocates for the promotion of lawfulness by teaching fundamental legal information and ensuring compliance in schools. The policy paper aims to establish a positive process of legal socialization. While a school’s curriculum cannot completely balance social and environmental influences, it represents a necessary initial step in challenging negative views and breaking the cycle of non-compliance. Childhood legal socialization equips individuals with “normative proficiency” in law, which refers to their ability to meet normative expectations, as Christopher Engel explains. Specific regulations will gradually impart declarative knowledge on what actions to take or avoid.
New laws are more likely to be followed if there is a shared understanding of normative competency. As stated earlier in this section, this article asserts that over time, enough individuals will conform to certain behaviors if they believe others are doing the same.

Explanation Limits and Research Potential
The legal judgments made by individuals on a daily basis exist within a realm of informational boundaries, which are in dire need of legal literature to transform their foundation of complete legal knowledge. By acknowledging the imperfect information situations faced by legal subjects, legal research and policy can better comprehend and predict the implementation of regulations. The question arises: how can we decide whether to abide by the law if we are unaware of its existence? The theory of compliance through social proof sheds light on the widespread adherence or non-adherence to laws in societies. Our brain employs cognitive heuristics of availability and representativeness to generalize from a limited number of observed activities. Furthermore, the concept of information cascades, both within and across laws, elucidates how a small number of activities can lead to widespread compliance or non-compliance.
By focusing on how our brains process vital information for legal compliance rather than solely discussing the content and enforcement of legislation, we bolster the theories surrounding legal compliance. Individuals may adhere to laws due to fear of punishment or the allure of economic incentives. Alternatively, it may be the case that legislation aligns with or represents societal norms. Social proof acts as a filter for the information we receive, ultimately resulting in compliance or non-compliance, regardless of the underlying reason. The perceived danger or reward of penalties or incentives is what drives individuals, rather than the actual probability of experiencing them. Social proof derived from the behavior of those around us helps shape our opinions on these factors.
However, it is important to recognize that this line of reasoning also imposes limitations on legal compliance. Social evidence serves to explain legal compliance in addition to existing frameworks, rather than replacing them entirely. The evidence for or against law compliance often stems from shared normative beliefs regarding the substance of the law or faith in legal institutions. If our inclination is to imitate others, we correct our behavior if it conflicts with our normative or rational objectives, be they social, economic, or political in nature. Hence, in society, natural selection tends to favor the persistence of sticky social proof. Disregarding the causes of social proof while attempting to rectify it may undermine the legitimacy of the law. The current paradigm fails to account for the structural explanations, both legal and social, behind law compliance and perception across communities. Due to its self-reinforcing nature, social proof may elucidate why law compliance remains low even after the resolution of underlying disputes. Alternatively, it clarifies why tax compliance regulations continue to shape behavior despite a decrease in conventional compliance and an increase in non-compliance rewards.
The central assertion of this article is that the concept of legality, legal enforcement, and compliance is not always straightforward. Our minds process all social and legal information through a socio-cognitive framework when it comes to the law and its execution. Understanding the mismatch between how people perceive the law and its actual regulation becomes even more crucial when considering this socio-cognitive theory. We must not automatically assume that general compliance in a society equates to legal compliance. Furthermore, non-compliance with a law does not necessarily indicate a flaw in its substance or execution.
This explanation lends support to studies on voluntary adherence to the law. It emphasizes the importance of educating individuals about the law and encouraging compliance. Social proof can be utilized to disseminate legal knowledge and foster compliance. This approach allows the discussion on regulatory implementation to move beyond merely focusing on increasing prosecution rates, imposing harsher penalties, and enhancing law enforcement at significant state expenses. This is especially vital for emerging economies, which face more compliance challenges and have limited resources. Creating the perception that non-compliance is costly does not require an actual increase in expenses.


3. Robert B. Cialdini & Noah J. Goldstein, Social Influence: Compliance and Conformity,55ANN.REV.PSYCH. 591, 622 (2005).
4. See generally ERIC A. POSNER,SOCIAL NORMS,NONLEGAL SANCTIONS, AND THE LAW (2007) (expounding on the interaction of law, on the one hand, and social norms and non-legal sanctions, on the other hand).
5. Richard H. McAdams, The Origin, Development and Regulation of Norms,96MICH.L.REV. 338, 433 (1997).
6. Robert Cooter, Normative Failure Theory of Law,82CORNELL L. REV. 947, 979 (1997).
7. Dan Kahan, Social Influence, Social Meaning and Deterrence,83VA.L.REV. 349, 395 (1997).
8. Id. at 350.
10. See generally RICHARD H. MCADAMS,THE EXPRESSIVE POWERS OF LAW:THEORIES AND LIMITS (2015) (explaining how the law creates compliance through its expressive power to coordinate behaviors and inform beliefs).
11. See generally Lawrence Lessig, The Regulation of Social Meaning,62U.CHI.L.REV. 943 (1995).
12. Kevin C. Kennedy, A Critical Appraisal of Criminal Deterrence Theory,88DICK.L.REV. 1, 7 (1983).
13. Omri Ben-Shahar, The Myth of the “Opportunity to Read” in Contract Law (Univ. of Chi. L. & Econ. Working Paper, Paper No. 415, 2008).
14. See, e.g., Steven Shavell, An Analysis of Causation and the Scope of Liability in the Law of Torts, 9 J. LEGAL STUD. 463, 516 (1980). However, this Article argues that the assumption is frequent in any analysis which presumes without investigating about extent of legal information that compliance or non-compliance is a deliberate attempt at following or not following the law.
15. Gary S. Becker, Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach,76J.POL.ECON. 169, 217 (1968).
16. Id.
18. Id.
19. Benjamin van Rooij, Do People Know the Law? Empirical Evidence about Legal Knowledge and Its Implications for Compliance,CAMBRIDGE HANDBOOK OF COMPL. (forthcoming 2021).
20. Pascoe Pleasence, Nigel J. Balmer & Catrina Denvir, Wrong About Rights: Public Knowledge of Key Areas of Consumer, Housing and Employment Law in England and Wales,80MOD.L.REV. 836, 859 (2017).
21. Lessig, supra note 11, at 969.
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23. See ROBERT C. ELLICKSON,ORDER WITHOUT LAW:HOW NEIGHBORS SETTLE DISPUTES (1990) (arguing that individuals were less likely to recognize legal rules if it contradicted with the folklore).
24. Peter H. Aranson, Rational Ignorance in Politics, Economics and Law,1J.DES ÉCONOMISTES ET DES ÉTUDES HUMAINES 25, 42 (2014).
25. See Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Contributions of the Economics of Information to Twentieth Century Economics, 115 Q. J. ECON. 1441, 1478 (2007) (outlining information economics and how it addresses information asymmetry in economic decisions); see also Edgar Kiser, Comparing Varieties of Agency Theory in Economics, Political Science, and Sociology: An Illustration from State Policy Implementation,17SOC.THEORY 146, 170 (1999) (articulating how sociology, political science and economics deals with information problems in principal-agent models).
26. Herbert Simon, A Behavioural Model of Rational Choice,69Q.J.ECON. 99, 118 (1955).
27. Id.
30. Abhijit V. Banerjee, A Simple Model of Herd Behavior, 107 Q. J. ECON. 797, 817 (1992).
31. Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer & Ivo Welch, Learning from the Behavior of Others: Conformity, Fads, and Informational Cascades,12J.ECON.PERSP. 151, 170 (1998).
33. David Hirshleifer & Siew Hong Teoh, Herd Behaviour and Cascading in Capital Markets: A Review and Synthesis,9EUR. FIN.MGMT. 25, 66 (2003).
35. Banerjee, supra note 30, at 817; Hayagreeva Rao, Henrich R. Greve & Gerald F. Davis, Fool’s Gold: Social Proof in the Initiation and Abandonment of Coverage by Wall Street Analysts,46ADMIN.SCI. Q. 502, 526 (2001).
36. Bikhchandani, Hirshleifer & Welch, supra note 31.
37. Riccardo Viale & Andrea Pozzali, Cognitive Aspects of Tacit Knowledge and Cultural Diversity, in MODEL-BASED REASONING IN SCIENCE,TECHNOLOGY, AND MEDICINE 229, 229 (Lorenzo Magnani & Ping Li eds., 2007).
38. Michelle C. Baddeley, Herding, Social Influence and Economic Decision-Making: Socio-Psychological and Neuroscientific Analyses, 365 PHIL.TRANSACTIONS ROYAL SOC’Y 281, 290 (2010).
39. Gerd Gigerenzer & Daniel G. Goldstein, Reasoning the Fast and Frugal Way: Models of Bounded Rationality, 103 PSYCH. REV. 650, 669 (1996).
40. Cass R. Sunstein, Social Norms and Social Roles,96COLUM.L.REV. 903 (1996).
41. Steven M. Sheffrin & Robert K. Triest, Can Brute Deterrence Backfire: Perceptions and Attitudes in Taxpayer Compliance, in WHY PEOPLE PAY TAXES:TAX COMPLIANCE AND ENFORCEMENT 193, 212 (Joel Slemrod ed., 1992) (finding that “tax gap” stories can spark greater evasion even when information about noncompliance is combined with publicity of stepped up enforcement efforts); John T. Scholz, Kathleen M. McGraw & Marco R. Steenbergen, Taxpayer Adaptation to the 1986 Tax Reform Act: Do New Laws Affect the Way Taxpayers Think About Taxes, in WHY PEOPLE PAY TAXES:TAX COMPLIANCE AND ENFORCEMENT 9–37 (Joel Slemrod ed., 1992) (noting that opinions towards taxation of persons whom a taxpayer interacts with exert a greater influence on compliance rate than economic consequences of taxation on a taxpayer).
42. Sarah-Jeanne Salvy, Eric R. Pedersen, Jeremy N.V. Miles, Joan S. Tucker & Elizabeth J. D’Amico, Proximal and Distal Social Influence on Alcohol Consumption and Marijuana Use Among Middle School Adolescents, 144 DRUG &ALCOHOL DEPENDENCE 93, 93–101 (2014).
43. Id.
44. FRIEDMAN, supra note 17, at 44–72.
45. Justine E. Tinkler, People Are Too Quick to Take Offense: The Effects of Legal Information and Beliefs on Definitions of Sexual Harassment,33LAW &SOC’Y INQUIRY 417, 417–45 (2008).
46. Pascoe Pleasence & Nigel J. Balmer, Ignorance in Bliss: Modeling Knowledge of Rights in Marriage and Cohabitation,46 LAW &SOC’Y REV. 297 (2012).
47. See ANNE BARLOW,SIMON DUNCAN,GRACE JAMES &ALLISON PARK,COHABITATION,MARRIAGE AND THE LAW:SOCIAL CHANGE AND LEGAL REFORM IN THE 21 STCENTURY (2005); see also John M. Darley, Kevin M. Carlsmith & Paul H. Robinson, The Ex Ante Function of the Criminal Law,35LAW &SOC’Y REV. 165, 165–89 (2001); see also Pauline Kim, Norms, Learning, and Law: Exploring the Influences on Workers Legal Knowledge, 2 U. ILL.L.REV. 447, 447–515 (1999).
48. Simon, supra note 26, at 202.
49. CIALDINI, supra note 2.
50. May Sudhinaraset, Christina Wigglesworth & David T. Takeuchi, Social and Cultural Contexts of Alcohol Use: Influences in a Social–Ecological Framework,38ALCOHOL RES. 35, 35–45 (2016).
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58. Klar, supra note 54.
59. TERAJI, supra note 28.
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61. Susan L. Ostermann, Regulatory Pragmatism, Legal Knowledge and Compliance with Law in Areas of State Weakness,53 L. & SOC’Y REV. 1132, 1132–66 (2019).
62. Id.
63. Tversky & Kahneman, supra note 57.
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72. See Boga´chan Ćelen & Shachar Kariv, Distinguishing Informational Cascades from Herd Behavior in the Laboratory,94 AM.ECON.REV. 484, 484–98 (2004) (distinguishing the two manifestations of imitative behavior, in other words herding and informational cascades).
73. Bikhchandani, Hirshleifer & Welch, supra note 31, at 151–70; Ivo Welch, Sequential Sales, Learning, and Cascades,47J. FIN. 695, 695–732 (1992); Banerjee, supra note 30, at 817.
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77. MCADAMS, supra note 10.
78. See Maggie Wittlin, Buckling Under Pressure: An Empirical Test of the Expressive Effects of Law,28YALE J. ON REG. 420, 420–59 (2011); Patricia Funk, Is There An Expressive Function of Law? An Empirical Analysis of Voting Laws with Symbolic Fines,9AM.L.&ECON.REV. 135, 135–59 (2007).
79. Needless to say, the problem will not arise in situations where members of a society were sticking to a behavioral pattern out of normative social influence—such as fear of reputational sanction—exclusively. These outliers will happily comply with the law to provide the requisite initial social proof for a subsequent cascade, given they fulfil the previously discussed characteristics of adequate social proof.
80. See TOM R. TYLER,WHY PEOPLE OBEY THE LAW (1990); see also Jason Sunshine & Tom R. Tyler, The Role of Procedural Justice and Legitimacy in Shaping Public Support for Policing,37LAW &SOC’Y REV. 513, 513–48 (2003).
81. Susan M. Olson & David A. Huth, Explaining Public Attitudes Toward Local Courts,20JUST.SYS. J. 41, 41–61 (1998).
82. See generally Bernard E. Harcourt, Illusion of Order: The False Promise of Broken Windows Policing,43BRIT.J.CRIM. 446 (2003) (critiquing the broken window theory).
83. Jeffrey Fagan & Tom R. Tyler, Policing, Order Maintenance and Legitimacy, in POLICING IN CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE:DILEMMAS OF CONTEMPORARY CRIMINAL JUSTICE (Gorazd Mesko et al., eds., 2004); Jacinta M. Gau & Rod K. Brunson, Procedural Justice and Order Maintenance Policing: A Study of Inner-City Young Men’s Perceptions of Police Legitimacy,27JUST. Q. 255, 255–79 (2010).
84. Chantal Augven, Legal Socialisation: From Compliance to Familiarization Through Permeation,1EUR.J.LEGAL STUD. 265 (2007).
85. Jeffrey Fagan & Tom R. Tyler, Legal Socialization of Children and Adolescents,18SOC.JUST.RES. 217, 217–41 (2005).
86. Clifford Geertz, Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,inTHE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES: SELECTED ESSAYS 3, 3–30 (1973).
87. Fagan & Tyler, supra note 83.
89. Christoph Engel, Learning the Law, 4 J. INST.ECON. 275, 275–97 (2008).
90. Roy S (2021). Theory of Social Proof and Legal Compliance: A Socio-Cognitive Explanation for Regulatory (Non) Compliance. German Law Journal 22, 238–255.