Roseanna Sommers on Consent, Privacy, and the Psychology of Compliance
Would You Let the Police Search Your Phone?
Law enforcement officers on the doorstep threatening to “come back with a warrant” is a cliché of police procedural dramas. Things are much less dramatic in real life: The officers ask if they can take a look around, and the civilians say yes without putting up a fight.
A key question in so-called “consent-search” cases is why people so readily agree to allow intrusions into their privacy. The answer, as we argue in a forthcoming article in The Yale Law Journal, is that psychologically, it’s much harder to refuse consent than it seems. The degree of pressure needed to get people to comply is shockingly minimal — and our ability to recognize this fact is limited.
The legal standard for whether a consent search is voluntary — and thus whether any contraband police discover is admissible in court — is whether a reasonable person would have felt free to refuse the officers’ request. Courts tend to judge the voluntariness of consent by looking for clear markers of coercion. Did the officer phrase the request as a demand, instead of a question? Were weapons drawn? If not, the search is likely to be deemed voluntary.
But this approach misunderstands the psychology of compliance. It takes much less pressure than it seems to secure people’s acquiescence. Police don’t need to use weapons to get people to accede to their requests; they just need to ask. Our research shows that a simple, polite face-to-face request is harder to refuse than we think.
Read more at The New York Times