Yuval Feldman


On his book The Law of Good People: Challenging States' Ability to Regulate Human Behavior

Cover Interview of January 30, 2019

The wide angle

The book attempts to bring together three related bodies of literature and make them speak to each other. The first one is behavioral economics. Through thousands of experiments, this literature has shown how limited people are in their decision making. Current research on people’s bounded rationality, on solutions to problems such as pensions, food, organ donation, and the like, are important but behavioral sciences could potentially contribute more by doing more research on people’s ability to improve their ethicality and by writing more on larger questions such as the rule of law in society.

The second one is law and society, which focuses on compliance and rule following behavior with little attention paid to behavioral mechanisms. In contrast to studies in sociology and political science, the impact of the behavioral sciences on the law and society literature is limited to very narrow topics such as procedural justice and moral judgment; it misses the opportunity to use the behavioral sciences to study the motivations of people and to act on that knowledge. The third literature, behavioral ethics, which this book introduces to the legal scholarship, emerged in psychology and management, with less attention paid to legal institutions, compliance, and enforcement than will be needed, if we want to solve the problem of ordinary unethicality.

In this book, I combined these bodies of scholarship to suggest that we might be able to change laws with the intention of raising people’s awareness of the law and their motivation to follow the law. According to the view presented in the book, regulators should be able to determine in advance which types of situations are likely to encourage acts of ordinary unethicality; which policy tools are more or less effective when dealing with people who don’t view their actions as unethical or illegal; and could create a more effective regulatory system suitable for the different types of rule violators.

Intellectually, the book grew out of my background in psychology and law: I did my PhD in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy program at UC Berkeley between 1999 and 2004; there, I studied the gap between formal laws and social norms in the context of trade secret divulgence in Silicon Valley. I believe the fact that economists and psychologists––Bob Cooter, Rob Maccoun and Phil Tellock––rather than legal scholars were my advisors, ended up having a huge impact on my academic research, as I continued studying the behavioral mechanisms that underlie compliance in numerous contexts in the years since. My research has focused primarily on the behavioral aspects of the area of regulation, enforcement, and compliance. In 2011-2013, I had an opportunity to work in the Corruption Lab in Harvard University, where I was exposed to behavioral ethics, and had a chance to work with some of the founding fathers and mothers of this field (e.g., Mahzarin Banaji, Max Bazerman, and Fancesca Gino), leading me to focus on the intellectual and applied potential of bringing this field to bear more on legal scholarship.