To what extent do individuals’ perceptions of legitimacy affect their intrinsic motivations to comply with an authority? Answering this question has critical implications for law enforcement but is challenging because actions or institutions that affect intrinsic motivations typically also affect extrinsic, material ones. To disentangle these, we propose an experimental approach that separately identifies the effect of an authority’s costly action to improve enforcement fairness on citizen behavior through both intrinsic and extrinsic channels. In experiment 1, the authority’s simple attempt to institute fairer enforcement increases prosocial behavior by 10 to 12 percentage points via the intrinsic channel. A follow-up experiment demonstrates that this is not motivated by citizen attempts to “pay back” authorities. Our findings provide causally credible evidence that an authority’s actions can directly shape citizens’ behavior by enhancing her legitimacy and have important implications in policy domains where this conflicts with other incentives.
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