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Despite pervasive variation in the content of laws, legal theorists and anthropologists have argued that laws share certain abstract features and even speculated that law may be a human universal. In the present report, we evaluate this thesis through an experiment administered in 11 different countries. Are there cross-cultural principles of law? In a between-subjects design, participants (N = 3,054) were asked whether there could be laws that violate certain procedural principles (e.g., laws applied retrospectively or unintelligible laws), and also whether there are any such laws. Confirming our preregistered prediction, people reported that such laws cannot exist, but also (paradoxically) that there are such laws. These results document cross-culturally and –linguistically robust beliefs about the concept of law which defy people's grasp of how legal systems function in practice.
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Are There Cross‐Cultural Legal Principles? Modal Reasoning Uncovers
Procedural Constraints on Law
Hannikainen, Ivar R ; Tobia, Kevin P ; Almeida, Guilherme da F C F ; Donelson, Ra ; Dranseika,
Vilius ; Kneer, Markus ; et al
Abstract: Despite pervasive variation in the content of laws, legal theorists and anthropologists have ar-
gued that laws share certain abstract features and even speculated that law may be a human universal. In
the present report, we evaluate this thesis through an experiment administered in 11 dierent countries.
Are there cross-cultural principles of law? In a between-subjects design, participants (N = 3,054) were
asked whether there could be laws that violate certain procedural principles (e.g., laws applied retrospec-
tively or unintelligible laws), and also whether there are any such laws. Conrming our preregistered
prediction, people reported that such laws cannot exist, but also (paradoxically) that there are such laws.
These results document cross-culturally and –linguistically robust beliefs about the concept of law which
defy people’s grasp of how legal systems function in practice.
Posted at the Zurich Open Repository and Archive, University of Zurich
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The following work is licensed under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives
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Originally published at:
Hannikainen, Ivar R; Tobia, Kevin P; Almeida, Guilherme da F C F; Donelson, Ra; Dranseika, Vilius;
Kneer, Markus; et al (2021). Are There Cross‐Cultural Legal Principles? Modal Reasoning Uncovers
Procedural Constraints on Law. Cognitive Science, 45(8):e13024.
Cognitive Science 45 (2021) e13024
© 2021 The Authors. Cognitive Science published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of Cognitive Science
Society (CSS).
ISSN: 1551-6709 online
DOI: 10.1111/cogs.13024
Are There Cross-Cultural Legal Principles? Modal
Reasoning Uncovers Procedural Constraints on Law
Ivar R. Hannikainen,aKevin P. Tobia,bGuilherme da F. C. F. de Almeida,c
Raff Donelson,dVilius Dranseika,eMarkus Kneer,fNiek Strohmaier,g
Piotr Bystranowski,eKristina Dolinina,hBartosz Janik,iSothie Keo,j
e Lauraityt˙
e,hAlice Liefgreen,kMaciej Próchnicki,eAlejandro Rosas,l
Noel Struchinerc
aUniversity of Granada, Spain
bGeorgetown University, USA
cPontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
dPennsylvania State University, USA
eJagellonian University, Poland
fUniversity of Zurich, Switzerland
gLeiden University, The Netherlands
hVilnius University, Lithuania
iUniversity of Silesia, Poland
jAmerican University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia
kUniversity College London, UK
lNational University of Colombia at Bogotá, Colombia
Received 20 November 2020; received in revised form 28 June 2021; accepted 29 June 2021
Despite pervasive variation in the content of laws, legal theorists and anthropologists have argued
that laws share certain abstract features and even speculated that law may be a human universal. In
the present report, we evaluate this thesis through an experiment administered in 11 different coun-
tries. Are there cross-cultural principles of law? In a between-subjects design, participants (N=3,054)
were asked whether there could be laws that violate certain procedural principles (e.g., laws applied
Correspondence should be sent to Ivar R. Hannikainen, Department of Philosophy I, Faculty of Psychology,
Cartuja Campus, Universidad de Granada, Granada 18011, Spain. E-mail:
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs
License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use
is non-commercial and no modifications or adaptations are made.
2of13 I. R. Hannikainen et al. / Cognitive Science 45 (2021)
retrospectively or unintelligible laws), and also whether there are any such laws. Confirming our pre-
registered prediction, people reported that such laws cannot exist, but also (paradoxically) that there are
such laws. These results document cross-culturally and –linguistically robust beliefs about the concept
of law which defy people’s grasp of how legal systems function in practice.
Keywords: Concepts; Experimental jurisprudence; Human universals; Lon Fuller; Modality; Natural
1. Introduction
Laws vary remarkably from one jurisdiction to the next. Even within jurisdictions, leg-
islative changes are frequent and shift the legal status of various practices over time. These
changes in legality accompany fluctuations in the prevailing morality (Ofosu, Chambers,
Chen, & Hehman, 2019), perhaps even helping to precipitate shifts in public opinion. Despite
the abrupt historical change and cultural diversity in the content of legal norms, theorists in
law (Finnis, 1980; Fuller, 1964) and anthropology (Brown, 1991) have speculated that certain
features of their form may be universal. Yet, no research to date has examined whether people
across cultures share intuitions about what laws fundamentally are. In the present work, we
sought to fill this gap in our understanding of the cognitive science of law.
In the neighboring disciplines of moral psychology and behavioral economics, extensive
research agendas have now documented robust patterns in people’s moral (Cushman, Young,
& Hauser, 2006; Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999) and economic (Boyer & Pedersen,
2018) preferences across various cultures (Hannikainen et al., 2019). These research pro-
grams have uncovered various universal ethical principles, for instance, the role of intent in
moral blameworthiness (Barrett et al., 2016), the distinction between personal and imper-
sonal forms of harm (Awad, Dsouza, Shariff, Rahwan, & Bonnefon, 2020), the tendency to
uphold taboos related to bodily purity and sanctity (Graham, Haidt, & Nosek, 2009), such
as norms proscribing sibling incest (Haidt, Koller, & Dias, 1993), and systematic deviations
from self-interest, such as the tendency to exact costly punishment (Henrich et al., 2005).
Theorists in the legal domain have argued that this palette of moral sentiments forms the
basis for an intuitive jurisprudence” (Mikhail, 2007; Sznycer & Patrick, 2020), according
to which the structure and content of criminal legal codes crystallize basic aspects of our
moral sense. In one recent study (Sznycer & Patrick, 2020), participants were asked to con-
sider a series of ancient laws, drawn from the Tang Code (such as gratuitously killing one’s
slave) and the Laws of Eshnunna (such as liability for one’s goring ox), and reported their
moral reactions—for example, of perceived shame and wrongness—in response to hypotheti-
cal violations of these dated laws. Strikingly, the intensity of participants’ reactions predicted
the magnitude of legal punishment, whether in the form of a fine or prison time, stipulated in
these millennia-old criminal codes. This universalist paradigm—implicating our basic moral
sensibilities in the genesis of legal doctrines—would also help explain the near-universal
emergence of certain criminal laws (e.g., regarding murder, see Mikhail, 2009) and of legal
institutions as a basic property of social groups (Brown, 1991; Hoebel, 1954; Nader, 1965).
I. R. Hannikainen et al. / Cognitive Science 45 (2021) 3of13
In our present study, we pursue a related prediction: namely, that people around the world
share an intuitive grasp of the formal properties of law—as well as its content. The view
that laws must observe certain procedural principles has come to be associated most strongly
with the work of American philosopher Lon Fuller. His famous (1964) book told the tale of a
hypothetical king, Rex, who—through a sequence of failures—gradually discovered the eight
procedural principles capable of transforming his imperatives and royal wishes into what
could be properly referred to as a legal system. For instance, at first, Rex did not publicly
proclaim the rules of his kingdom, but instead kept them secret in his diary. As a result, the
populace could not possibly know Rex’s rules—which taught Rex his first lesson: that laws
need to be publicly promulgated.
Philosophers of law have recurrently debated the question of whether laws must meet cer-
tain procedural requirements, but the corresponding body of empirical evidence examining
whether the concept of law exhibits such constraints is meager. One recent study—which
inspired the present attempt at cross-cultural generalization—did reveal that lawyers and
laypeople in the United States consider the procedural principles illustrated in Fuller’s (1964)
writings to be, in a paradoxical sense, essential to the law (Donelson & Hannikainen, 2020).
The paradox lies in the way participants reacted to different linguistic formulations of the
same procedural principles:
One group of participants was asked to assess whether, in their experience, laws observe
or violate each of the procedural principles (e.g., whether or not there are laws “punishing
people for acts that were legal at the time they were performed”). Looking across all eight
procedural principles, participants were divided on whether actual laws abide by these proce-
dural principles.
According to most systems of modal logic, if there exists even a single retrospective law,
it follows that retrospective laws certainly could exist—in virtue of axiom M. A separate
group of participants were asked precisely this question: Could the laws of a hypothetical
nation violate each of the procedural principles (e.g., whether there could be any laws “pun-
ishing people for acts that were legal at the time they were performed”)? Both lawyers and
nonlawyers reported the opposite pattern of responses: namely, that there could not be any
retrospective laws (even though there actually are). A very similar pattern emerged when
considering the remaining procedural principles: for example, that laws be announced pub-
licly, made intelligible to the vast majority, changed infrequently at most, and so on.
Did this effect arise simply because participants did not grasp the relevant axiom of modal
logic (i.e., that if a law exhibits property P, then laws necessarily could exhibit property P)? A
follow-up study spoke against this explanation: When asked to simultaneously consider actual
and possible laws, participants reported that laws often abide by the procedural principles,
though it would be possible for laws to violate them—reversing the direction of the difference
between conditions.
In sum, this preliminary evidence reveals an apparent contradiction: that laws need to
observe certain procedural constraints, even though actual laws routinely violate them. One
question this raises is: If, from their empirical knowledge of what laws are like, people con-
clude that there are no procedural principles that laws generally abide by; then how might they
form the inconsistent judgment that laws could not possibly violate those same principles?
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One possibility is that this judgment stems from a mental representation or concept of
law” (Margolis & Laurence, 1999). Such a concept could be a prototype, or essential-
ized belief—arising from the simpler concepts of norm,” fairness,” and punishment,” for
example—and which depends weakly on one’s experience with actual laws. This hypothesis
yields a further empirical prediction: that the tendency to ascribe these procedural properties
to law should emerge across cultures, despite fundamental variation in the particularities of
each legal system and its manifestation.
To examine this prediction, we sampled from what comparative law scholars describe as
the two primary legal systems: that is, common (e.g., United States and India) and civil law
(e.g., Brazil and Poland; see Dainow, 1966). The former tradition evolved in England and
characteristically places greater weight on judge-made law (i.e., previous judicial decisions
and precedential cases); the latter originated in mainland Europe and places greater weight on
statutory law (i.e., codified law written by legislators). This distinction, however, is sometimes
seen as overly coarse (see Merryman & Pérez-Perdomo, 2020). Additionally, we ascertained
that the 11 jurisdictions in our study varied in the strength of the rule of law (see World Justice
Project, 2020).
Finally, we administered the study in the local language for each field site, helping to
establish whether the effect of modal reasoning on beliefs about the law arises across different
language families (from Romance, Germanic, and Balto-Slavic, to Indic and Austroasiatic
This cross-cultural and -linguistic approach enables us to sidestep a widespread limitation
of previous research in psychological science: Various reports have highlighted the disci-
pline’s ethnocentric bias (e.g., Thalmayer, Toscanelli, & Arnett, 2021) in advancing claims
about human psychology on the basis of evidence derived almost exclusively from Western,
English-speaking samples.
2. Methods
2.1. Field sites and participants
We selected 11 different field sites for data collection on the basis of (i) linguistic and
cultural diversity, and (ii) variation in the strength of the rule of law. To ensure a balance of
strong and weak rule of law, we consulted the Rule of Law Index 2020 (World Justice Project,
2020). The Rule of Law Index draws on thousands of household and expert surveys worldwide
to quantify the strength of the rule of law across nations along eight complementary dimen-
sions: constraints on government, absence of corruption and revolving doors,” open govern-
ment (guaranteeing information and civic participation), fundamental rights (e.g., absence of
discrimination and freedom of expression and assembly), order and security (low levels of
crime and political violence), regulatory enforcement, civil justice, and criminal justice. The
Netherlands and Germany were rated as having very strong rule of law—appearing among
the top 10 countries. Some other countries (including Brazil, India, Colombia, and Cambo-
dia) were classified as having a weak rule of law, and spanned the bottom half of the global
I. R. Hannikainen et al. / Cognitive Science 45 (2021) 5of13
Tab le 1
Sample characteristics
Country NAge Mean (SD) Gender (% women) Recruitment method
Brazil 223 27.5 (10.1) 51.0% Word-of-mouth
Cambodia 100 24.1 (6.31) 55.0% Word-of-mouth
Colombia 263 22.1 (3.80) 35.4% Extra-credit
Germany 237 37.1 (11.7) 50.2% Panel (
India 275 32.7 (9.50) 63.3% Panel (
Lithuania 242 32.4 (9.35) 43.0% Word-of-mouth
The Netherlands 722 45.9 (14.3) 48.9% Word-of-mouth & Panel
Poland 271 29.2 (8.54) 42.3% Word-of-mouth
Spain 289 43.2 (15.3) 55.1% Panel (
United Kingdom 210 35.2 (12.7) 62.9% Panel (
United States 222 37.4 (11.4) 57.0% Panel (
TOTAL 3,054 36.0 (14.0) 48.5% -
The minimum target sample size per site was established at 100 participants per condi-
tion and field site (i.e., target n=200/site), and was met everywhere except Cambodia (see
Table 1). This sample size provides adequate statistical power (β=.20) to detect an odds
ratio 1.40 setting αat .05.
2.2. Materials
The stimuli were adapted from Donelson and Hannikainen (2020) and translated into eight
additional languages by native speakers: Dutch, German, Hindi, Khmer, Lithuanian, Polish,
Portuguese, and Spanish. Site collaborators were asked to iteratively compare oral back-
translations (into English) against the original materials.
The main task was made up of eight pairs of statements with an affirmation (e.g., “Some
laws change very frequently”) and a negation (e.g., “No laws change very frequently”) in
each pair. These items could be worded as either existential statements, or modal statements
as shown in Figure 1.
Thus, the difference between conditions was the inclusion of an auxiliary verb transforming
the existential statements into modal statements. In each language, we sought to employ aux-
iliary verbs that primarily denote possibility and necessity (i.e., alethic modality; see Table 2).
The post-experiment test consisted of three questions, assessing how participants had inter-
preted the task. On a seven-point scale anchored at –3: “Not at all” and 3: “Completely,”
reported whether they were thinking about:
1. “what laws are usually like, in your experience” (i.e., empirical interpretation),
2. “what laws have to be like, as in the requirements for something to count as law” (i.e.,
alethic interpretation)
3. “what laws should be like, according to your beliefs about right and wrong” (i.e.,
deontic interpretation).
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Fig. 1. Rain cloud plot: probability density and scatter plot by procedural principle and condition. Each dot repre-
sents a country.
Materials in every language are available on the Open Science Framework at: https://osf.
2.3. Procedure
In a between-subjects design, participants were randomly assigned to either the Actual or
the Possible condition, and read the following introduction:
You will be shown eight pairs of statements regarding what laws are like. For each pair
of statements, please take a moment to think about which statement better reflects your
opinion about what laws are like.
I. R. Hannikainen et al. / Cognitive Science 45 (2021) 7of13
Tab le 2
Modal auxiliary verbs by language
Language auxiliary verb (count)
English could (14), would (4), might (1).
Dutch kan/zouden kunnen (14), moeten/zouden moeten (3),
mogelijk (1).
German könnte/könnten (10), kann (7), können (1).
a; 15),
(ach; 19),
Lithuanian (ne)gal˙
etų(14), tur˙
etų(4), gali (1).
Polish mo˙
ze/mog ˛a (15), musz ˛a(4).
Portuguese poderia/poderiam (14), teria/teriam (3).
Spanish podría/podrían (16), tendría/tendrían (3).
In each condition, the statement pairs were presented in a random order across participants.
In the Actual condition, participants read an existential statement and its negation in each
pair. Meanwhile, in the Possible condition, each pair contained a modal statement employing
an auxiliary verb and its negation. Participants were asked to endorse one statement from
each pair. On the following page, participants were asked a set of three questions about their
interpretation of the task.
Lastly, participants provided demographic information: age (in years), gender (Male,
Female ,Nonbinary), and legal background (Law student,Legal professional,Neither). Sub-
group analyses are reported in Supplementary Analysis 1.
2.4. Predictions and analysis plan
Our primary prediction, sample size determination, and analysis plan were preregistered
at Inspired by previous findings (Donelson & Hannikainen,
2020), we hypothesized greater endorsement of procedural principles in the Possible condi-
tion than in the Actual condition.
We coded endorsement as 1 if participants reported that a principle obtains, for exam-
ple, selected “The law as enforced does not [/could not] differ from the law as formally
announced.” Endorsement was coded as 0 if participants stated that a principle was or could
be violated, that is, selected “The law as enforced differs [/could differ] from the law as for-
mally announced.” In the analyses below, we conducted logistic regression models predicting
the probability () that participants endorse the procedural principle(s).
We tested our primary prediction in a mixed-effects logistic regression model entering
experimental condition as fixed effect, and participant and principle as crossed random effects.
Generalized linear mixed-models were conducted with the lme4 (Bates, Maechler, Bolker, &
Walker, 2015) package. Predicted probabilities (notated as ) are calculated in the emmeans
package in Rversion 3.6.2. Data and an accompanying Rscript are available at:
8of13 I. R. Hannikainen et al. / Cognitive Science 45 (2021)
3. Results
3.1. Preregistered analyses
Participants in the Actual condition were more likely to report that laws violated procedu-
ral principles (Actual: pˆ =.54, 95% CIasymptotic [.40, .68]) than participants in the Possible
condition were to say that those same principles could be violated (Possible: pˆ =.81, 95%
CIasymptotic [.72, .89]), OR =3.74, 95% CI [3.41, 4.09], z=28.43, p<.001.
Treating country as a fixed factor, we observed a main effect of country, χ2(10) =115.0,
condition, χ2(1) =823.7, as well as a country×condition interaction, χ2(10) =169.6, all
ps<.001. The country×condition interaction revealed variation in the magnitude of the
effect across cultures, with modest effects emerging in India and the United Kingdom (ORs
<1.60) and large effects in Brazil and Poland (ORs >7.50). Still, the simple effect of con-
dition was significant in every country when analyzed separately (all ps<.010). Similarly,
treating principle as a fixed factor revealed a main effect of principle, χ2(7) =1877.4, and a
principle×condition interaction, χ2(7) =598.4 (while accounting for the effect of condition,
χ2[1] =710.8) all ps<.001. The interaction indicated that the magnitude of the effect varied
significantly across principles, going from small for the generality principle (OR =1.79) to
large for the consistency principle (OR =13.97; see also Figure 1). Nonetheless, the simple
effect of condition was statistically significant for each of the eight principles individually, all
Additionally, our preregistered prediction emerged robustly across age groups and genders,
and among lawyers and nonlawyers alike (as detailed in Supplementary Analysis 1). In sum,
generalizing the findings of Donelson and Hannikainen (2020), participants in the Possible
condition tended to report that laws could not violate various procedural principles even while
participants in the Actual condition recognized that they often do.
3.2. Exploratory analyses
3.2.1. Manipulation check
Modal language is employed primarily to represent necessity and possibility. For instance,
the question “Could there be life on Mercury?” concerns a physical possibility, just as the
assertion that “There could not be any married bachelors” expresses a logical impossibil-
ity. Collectively, these are referred to as alethic modals, insofar as they purport to assess
questions of necessity and possibility. In some contexts, however, modal language can also
be employed to denote so-called deontic properties—that is, permission and obligation. For
instance, the question “Could I sit next to you?” does not, generally speaking, inquire whether
the action in question is physically possible. Rather, it requests permission from the listener,
asking whether the action (i.e., sitting next to the listener) is allowed or forbidden, desirable
or undesirable, from the perspective of the listener.
Though these varieties of modality are easily distinguished in thought, natural languages
tend to offer imperfect ways of doing so—raising the possibility that participants interpreted
the statements in our experiment as deontic rather than alethic modals.
I. R. Hannikainen et al. / Cognitive Science 45 (2021) 9of13
Tab le 3
Task interpretation: marginal means by condition
Marginal means [95% CI] Fixed effect
Random effects
Actual Possible z p (int.) (slope)
Alethic 1.01
[0.73, 1.29]
3.38 .008 0.39 0.37
Deontic 0.71
[0.33, 1.10]
3.61 .006 0.55 0.43
Empirical 1.24
[1.05, 1.43]
0.68[ 0.32,
–3.96 .003 0.25 0.43
Tab le 4
Correlation between interpretation measures in the Actual (below diagonal) and Possible (above diagonal) condi-
(1) (2) (3)
(1) Alethic .35*** .48***
[.31, .40] [.44, .52]
(2) Deontic .48*** – .15***
[.44, .52] [.09, .20]
(3) Empirical .03 .01
[-.02, .09] [–.05, .06]
***p <.001.
To examine this possibility, we probed participants’ interpretations of the task through a
set of three post-test questions. In mixed-effects linear regression models with country as
a random effect, we examined the effect of condition on each interpretation measure (see
Table 3). As expected, participants viewed the existential construction (“There are laws…”)
as inviting an empirical assessment about “what laws are usually like in [their] experience
(z=–3.96, p=.003). Meanwhile, the modal construction (“There could be laws…”) was
interpreted as describing both what laws “must be like in order to count as law” (an alethic
interpretation; z=3.38, p=.008) and what laws “should be like ideally, according to [one’s]
beliefs about right and wrong” (a deontic interpretation; z=3.61, p=.006).
3.2.2. Effects of task interpretation
The measures of participants’ interpretation of the task were moderately correlated in each
condition (see Table 4). As such, estimating the impact of task interpretation via moderation
analyses could be jeopardized by the presence of multicollinearity (but see Supplementary
Analysis 3). Instead, to examine whether our primary finding depended on participants’ inter-
pretation of the task (and, particularly, of the modal construction in the Possible condition),
we conducted latent profile analyses (Collins & Lanza, 2009) identifying patterns of interpre-
tation (or latent profiles) across the three items in each condition.
10 of 13 I. R. Hannikainen et al. / Cognitive Science 45 (2021)
These person-centered analyses revealed that differences in task interpretation were driven
by a minority profile in each condition: In the Actual condition, one-in-five (n=352) partic-
ipants reported reflecting on the empirical facts about law (Mempirical =1.59, 95% CI [1.43,
1.74], SD =1.50), but not its necessary (Malethic =–0.32, 95% CI [–0.53, –0.12], SD =1.98)
or deontic (Mdeontic =–2.07, 95% CI [–2.16, –1.97], SD =0.92) properties. Meanwhile, the
majority reported a fairly indiscriminate, hybrid interpretation (1.19 <all Ms<1.47, 1.14 <
all SDs<1.42). Similarly, a minority in the Possible condition (n=237) reported focusing on
the necessary properties of law (Malethic =0.56, 95% CI [0.22, 0.67], SD =2.07; Mempirical =
0.30, 95% CI [–0.06, 0.37], SD =1.97), but not its deontic properties (Mdeontic =–1.84, 95%
CI [–1.97, –1.71], SD =1.02)—while again a large majority reported a hybrid interpretation
(0.82 <all Ms<1.79, 1.05 <all SDs<1.58).
Still, our primary prediction (concerning the effect of condition on endorsement) was borne
out even among participants in the minority profiles—who reported a selective interpretation
(Actual: pˆ =.50, 95% CIasymptotic [.36, .64]; Possible: pˆ =.78, 95% CIasymptotic [.65, .86]),
OR =3.46, z=11.65, p<.001. This result rules out one particular explanation for the
primary finding: namely, that participants interpreted the modal in a deontic manner, asking
themselves whether laws should observe the procedural principles in question (or be allowed
to violate them); and therefore that the difference between conditions reflects the recognition
that laws occasionally violate certain principles that ideally they ought to observe.
4. Discussion
Countries and jurisdictions differ substantially in the extent to which their legal systems
observe fundamental principles of the rule of law (World Justice Project, 2020). One might
expect that this variation would lead to cultural differences in people’s concept of law. Yet,
our present findings suggest that there is a remarkable level of agreement about the proce-
dural constraints on law—observable throughout the adult life span, across highly dissimilar
cultures and languages, and in lawyers and laypeople alike. People consistently believe that
laws necessarily abide by a series of procedural principles: they could not retroactively punish
past conduct, be kept secret, or be incomprehensible to most, for instance. Yet, people also
acknowledge that laws in practice violate these very principles.
The legal systems of the 11 countries in the study vary in large and significant ways; the
sample includes civil law and common law systems, countries with varying degrees of reli-
gious influence on their laws, and countries with diverse political, representational, and leg-
islative systems. These features are obviously relevant to other important legal and political
questions, but it is noteworthy that laypeople—across all of these different legal systems—
share common intuitions about the concept of law.
Although our study provided clear evidence of the phenomenon in question, it afforded
limited insight into the psychological processes that engender conflicting beliefs about actual
versus possible laws.
A growing body of evidence demonstrates mutual influences between descriptive and pre-
scriptive reasoning: Descriptive considerations—such as whether a behavior is common or
I. R. Hannikainen et al. / Cognitive Science 45 (2021) 11 of 13
rare—can sometimes be vested with normative weight, for example, when people punish non-
conformity to group norms (Roberts, Gelman, & Ho, 2017; Roberts, Ho, & Gelman, 2019).
Similarly, prescriptive considerations—such as whether a particular conduct is morally good
or evil—can shape descriptive judgments, for example, about whether such conduct is even
possible (Goldring & Heiphetz, 2020; Phillips & Cushman, 2017).
Our present findings could be understood as a manifestation of the latter phenomenon:
When prompted to reason about whether laws necessarily exhibit certain procedural con-
straints, most participants also considered whether such constraints would be desirable or
undesirable. And yet, in both person-centered and variable-centered analyses (see Supplemen-
tary Analysis 3), even those who interpreted the modals in a purely alethic fashion demon-
strated a comparable effect. As such, our study provided at least some negative evidence
concerning the mechanism: that is, that the effect is not driven by the ambiguity that pervades
modality in natural languages.
Since we assessed participants’ engagement in prescriptive thinking through their explicit
reports, this still leaves open unconscious pathways from prescriptive considerations to judg-
ments of necessity and possibility. In previous research, the tendency to interpret immoral
states of affairs as impossible arose mostly strongly in conditions favoring a quick and
intuitive assessment (i.e., under time pressure, see Phillips & Cushman, 2017). Therefore,
future work could investigate whether a broader, intuitive association between immorality
and impossibility undergirds people’s endorsement of procedural constraints on law.
A long tradition of research on essentialist thinking has demonstrated that people infer cat-
egory membership—for instance, whether something is a tiger (Gelman & Wellman, 1991),
or a work of art (Liao, Meskin, & Knobe, 2020)—on the basis of abstract, and even unob-
servable, qualities which constitute its essence (Gelman, 2004; Keil, 1989). This tendency
toward essentialization has also been observed in the legal context, when explaining stigma
surrounding criminals (i.e., as criminality is attributed to an intrinsic property of criminals;
see Dunlea & Heiphetz, 2020). Our present results can also be seen in this light: that is, as
revealing the qualities that people consider the essence of law, and which readily come to
mind when considering prototypical category members.
Relatedly, recent work reveals that various abstract concepts, such as love, friendship, or
art (Del Pinal & Reuter, 2017; Knobe, Prasada, & Newman, 2013; Liao et al., 2020), also
demonstrate certain trademarks of essentialist thinking: Building on the notion of dual char-
acter concepts, these studies demonstrate that being a true friend or a true artist depends
on the instantiation of deeper criteria for category membership, even when the superficial
criteria may be absent (Newman & Knobe, 2019; Rose & Nichols, 2020). This body of evi-
dence points toward a promising avenue for further research: Potentially, by comparison to
empirical reasoning about actual laws, modal reasoning about possible laws draws attention
toward deeper criteria for category membership (i.e., could true laws lack these procedural
properties?), such as the purpose of laws (Rose & Nichols, 2020; Struchiner, Hannikainen, &
de Almeida, 2020) or their moral dimension (Flanagan & Hannikainen, 2020; Knobe et al.,
Finally, we must note that the magnitude of the effect varied substantially across coun-
tries, which may imply some degree of cultural variability. Relatedly, our sampling methods
12 of 13 I. R. Hannikainen et al. / Cognitive Science 45 (2021)
differed substantially across sites; so variation in the magnitude of the effect might also reflect
differences in sample composition, attentiveness, or even acquiescence (see Heine, Lehman,
Peng, & Greenholtz, 2002).
Cognitive science has made ample progress in drawing the contours of the moral (Cushman
et al., 2006; Graham et al., 2009) and economic (Boyer & Pedersen, 2018; Henrich et al.,
2005) mind—while comparatively neglecting to investigate the psychological and cultural
bases of legal concepts. The present work represents an early step in this research program,
and provides evidence of cross-cultural convergence in people’s understanding of the nature
of law. We reveal a striking degree of universality in beliefs about the essential properties of
law, despite abundant historical and regional variation in the way actual laws manifest.
Author contributions
IRH and RD conceived the study concept. IRH, KPT, GA, VD, MK, and NS developed
and designed the study. All authors were involved in data collection and stimuli development.
IRH wrote the first draft with substantial contributions from KPT. All authors provided critical
revisions and approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.
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