Facebook Pixel

Working Paper Series

Intuitive Lawmaking: The Example of Child Support


  • Robert MacCoun, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley
  • Ira Mark Ellman, Arizona State University College of Law
  • Sanford L. Braver, Arizona State University (ASU) - Department of Psychology


  • Goldman School of Public Policy Working Paper: GSPP08-009 (July 2007)


Legal rules are often understood as setting the appropriate balance between competing claims. One might expect policymakers to identify these competing claims and employ a systematic and comprehensive analysis to assign them relative values, and to generate legal rules that follow from those values. But probably, they will not. If policy is instead set by intuitive assessments of the fair balance between competing claims, policymakers would do well to have a good understanding of the public's intuitions about these policy questions. Would a careful study of such intuitions reveal a coherent analytic framework in lay policy judgments, even if most people are unlikely to articulate their views in that way? This study examines that question in the context of child support rules. Child support awards necessarily involve tradeoffs in the allocation of finite resources among at least three private parties: the two parents, and their child or children. Using a sample of citizens called to jury service, we find that our respondents follow a predictable and rational course in their intuitive lawmaking. Their judgments in individual cases varied systematically with their views about four basic principles, suggesting that our respondents largely share a common understanding of the relevant factors that should influence decisions in particular cases, even though they differ in their judgment of the appropriate support level in many of them. Once anchored by their initial judgments, our respondents decide individual cases with considerable consistency and predictability. While gender differences conform to stereotypic expectations, the magnitude of these differences shrink when those with personal experience in the legal child support system are removed from the sample. Additional findings to be presented in future papers are also foreshadowed here.

Download File

Download a PDF (433KB)