Notes and Changes

This project examines the relationships between what the law is, what people believe the law to be, and what people aspire for the law to be. It takes seriously the possibility that people do not know perfectly what the law is, and tests the hypothesis that people’s beliefs about the law may sometimes be better explained by people’s aspirations for what the law should be, rather than what the law actually is.

To test this hypothesis, the paper presents the results of a survey asking 869 Americans in six states about ten of their own state laws: what they believed those laws to be, and what they thought those laws should be. The study then compares people’s reported beliefs to their aspirations, as well as to the actual state rules.

The paper has two basic findings. The first is that legal rules, beliefs, and aspirations all appear to routinely diverge from one another. This means that theories and interventions that treat legal rules as straightforward proxies for people’s beliefs risk overconfidence. Furthermore, where legal rules diverge from people’s subjective beliefs about those rules, it creates troubling barriers both to the law’s ability to effectively shape behavior, and to its expressive function. People who do not know the law are unlikely to be deterred by it; and in many cases, what people believe the law to be may be a purer expression of what they believe the law to express than anything measured by actual legal rules alone.

The second finding is that, while rules, beliefs and aspirations diverge, the relationships between them are partially predictable. Most strikingly, beliefs and aspirations tend to covary, meaning that people tend to believe that the law already is whatever they think it should be, and that people tend to think the law should be whatever they believe it already is. In some cases, this effect is strong enough that people’s aspirations become more predictive of what they believe the law to be than the legal rules actually in force. Importantly, this phenomenon of aspirational belief—where people’s beliefs about the law tend to move in parallel with their aspirations for it—creates a stumbling block for democratic legal systems that seek to develop laws that represent public aspirations, as citizens who wrongly believe their aspirations are already represented in their laws are unlikely to press for doctrinal change.

You can download the paper here: 


Professor Rowell's research interests revolve around risk regulation and human behavior. She has taught courses on environmental law, administrative law, behavioral law and economics, risk and the environment, law and sustainable economic development, and valuation. Her work has been published in student-edited law reviews and peer-reviewed journals including Science Magazine, Harvard Environmental Law Review, the Administrative Law Review, the Journal of Risk Analysis, and the University of Chicago Law Review. She has visited or has visits currently planned at Harvard Law School, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Oxford University.

In 2015, Rowell was named a University Scholar, a highly prestigious and competitive award program at the University of Illinois. 

Before joining the Illinois faculty in 2010, Professor Rowell was a Bigelow Fellow and lecturer in law at the University of Chicago Law School, from which she also received her J.D. After law school, Professor Rowell practiced at Perkins Coie LLP in Seattle, where she focused her practice on catastrophic torts. Professor Rowell has a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology/archaeology, which she earned from the University of Washington at the age of 18. Before law school, she worked as an encyclopedia entry writer and as a video game tester.

Follow Professor Rowell on Twitter @ArdenRowell.