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Since World War II, psychologists have devoted considerable attention to understanding the factors that shape people’s satisfaction with the outcomes of social or economic exchanges—outcomes of events not unlike the encounters occurring between judges and litigants in civil and criminal courtrooms, encounters between police officers and civilians, or encounters between mediators and disputants in alternative dispute resolution centers throughout the United States every day. In one classic early study, it came as somewhat of a surprise when it was discovered that satisfaction was not easily explained by economic theories of human behavior. This finding launched an inquiry guided by theories and empirical research that has continued to this day.
In this article, we offer an overview of the major developments in these theories and the accompanying research with an eye toward their implications for understanding the factors that shape citizens’ satisfaction with the U.S. legal system. Then, we note that the vast majority of this research has focused primarily on only a portion of the individuals who are engaged in the legal encounters that are taking place—the subordinates (the litigants, civilians, and disputants whose outcomes are being decided) rather than the authorities (the judges, police officers, and mediators who are deciding the cases), and we describe some recent research suggesting that the satisfaction of decision makers might be guided by different principles than the satisfaction of those who receive their decisions.