This research investigates why some adolescents are more likely to break rules than others by investigating the legal socialization process (i.e., how individuals develop their understanding of society's rules and make decisions to obey or break those rules). Traditional models of legal socialization focus on individuals' ability to reason about moral and legal issues and their attitudes about the legal system. The current project tests a new legal socialization model. Individuals who view authority figures that enforce rules in a fair manner are predicted to perceive the process as legitimate, to be less cynical about the rules, and to break fewer rules. Previous research testing this model has focused solely on the legal world (e.g., police officers and laws); the current research will include parents, teachers, and police as authority figures. The study will use a sample of 500 adolescents currently participating in the New Hampshire Youth Study (NHYS), a seven year longitudinal study of the predictors of delinquency. Participants will read scenarios describing situations in which an authority figure (i.e., parent, teacher, and police officer) behaves fairly or unfairly when enforcing a rule. After each scenario, participants will rate how legitimate the authority is, their cynicism toward the rule, and the likelihood they would break the rule if they were in the situation.

The findings will be used to develop an expanded model of legal socialization that integrates both traditional and new models of this process. Ultimately, the proposed research will provide a more comprehensive understanding of the manner in which adolescents develop their understanding of rules and decide to break or obey rules; thereby providing a basis for developing interventions aimed at reducing rule breaking among adolescents.

Project Report

This project examined how individuals’ interactions with authority figures influence their understanding of rules in society and how they make decisions to violate rules (i.e., legal socialization). The study tested a new model of legal socialization which argues that when legal authorities enforce a rule fairly, adolescents are more likely to perceive those authorities as legitimate, be less cynical about their rules, and less likely to decide to engage in RVB. This was the first study to examine this new model using experimental methodology, while also expanding the model to include non legal authorities (i.e., parents and teachers) as well as legal authorities (i.e., police officers). Adolescents and young adults were presented with a series of scenarios describing a situation in which an authority figure (i.e., parent, police officer, and teacher) enforced a rule either fairly or unfairly. Either the authority did or did not give the person a chance to voice their opinions and did or did not enforce the rule in an impartial manner. After reading the scenario, participants rated how legitimate they believed the authority to be, how cynical they were about the rule, and whether they believed the rule would be broken. The results showed support for a model in which authority legitimacy and rule cynicism mediated the relation between fair treatment and the decision to engage in rule violating behavior. Moreover, adolescents judged fair treatment differently depending on the authority in question. For authorities for whom they had long-term contact (i.e., parents and teachers), they were more concerned with whether the authority treated them the same way the authority treated other members in the group. However, for authorities for whom they had a single encounter or short-term contact, they were more concerned with whether the authority gave them a voice to explain their side. These results provide a more comprehensive understanding of the manner in which legal socialization factors influence rule-violating behavior in adolescence by showing that interactions with authority figures (a relatively unexplored factor) are an important part of the legal socialization process. In addition, they also emphasize that legal socialization, as well as rule-violation, are not based solely on adolescents’ experiences within the legal system, but also on their experiences in non legal situations and environments (e.g., the home and the school).

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Marjorie Zatz
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University of New Hampshire
United States
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