Lynn Stout


On her book Cultivating Conscience: How Good Laws Make Good People

Cover Interview of November 16, 2010

In a nutshell

This book deals with a basic question: What’s the best way to get people to behave themselves?

Modern legal, policy, and management experts often assume human beings are selfish creatures who respond only to punishments and rewards, and who can’t be trusted to do a good job or refrain from lying, cheating and stealing—unless given the right “incentives.”

Yet every day we see people behaving ethically and unselfishly.  Few of us mug the elderly or steal the paper from our neighbor’s yard; many of us go out of our way to help strangers.  We nevertheless overlook the good aspects of our own natures—fixating on the bad things people do and on how we can stop them.

Cultivating Conscience argues that this focus on bad behavior obscures the reality, and importance, of goodness—leading us to neglect the crucial role our better impulses could play in shaping society.

I explore the idea that, rather than leaning on the power of greed to channel human behavior, our laws and policies might often do better to focus on and promote the force of conscience—the cheapest and most effective police force one could ask for.

Cultivating Conscience starts by exploring the phenomenon of conscience (or, as a behavioral scientist might call it, “unselfish prosocial behavior”).  I examine how and why the idea of conscience has dropped out of sight in most legal and policy discussions, to be replaced by an unthinking reliance on a homo economicus model of human behavior as primarily selfish and opportunistic.

The book surveys the extensive and growing scientific evidence on conscience.  Drawing from behavioral economics, social psychology, and evolutionary biology, it demonstrates that, far from being rare and quirky, conscientious behavior is both common and predictable.  In particular, certain social cues—especially instructions from authority, beliefs about others’ selfishness or unselfishness, and perceptions of benefits to others—play powerful roles in triggering unselfish prosocial behavior.

Cultivating Conscience uses these findings to develop a simple recipe we can use to determine when most people will “follow their conscience”—and when they won’t.  This approach allows us to apply the lessons of behavioral science to our understanding of how laws and rules shape human behavior.

Using examples drawn from negligence law, contract law, and criminal law, Cultivating Conscience shows how we can put conscience to work—to understand the law better, to use it more effectively, and to promote better people.  The book offers an approach to cultivating ethical and cooperative behavior that can be employed not only by lawmakers and legal experts, but also by employers, educators, management specialists, charitable organizations, and civic leaders.