Document Type


Publication Date



Decades of social science research has shown that the identity of criminal defendants and alleged victims often affects case outcomes. Parties’ race, gender, class, and age affect decisions of prosecutors, judges, juries, and other actors in the criminal system. Less studied has been how identity might affect other forms of legal regulation. This essay begins to explore how parties’ gender might figure into legal decisionmakers’ responses to deceptive behavior. More specifically, we explore the hypothesis that ordinary people tend to perceive deception of women as more wrongful than deception of men, and that such perceptions can affect both case outcomes and decisions to regulate.

The hypothesis is consistent with research into gender stereotypes, which has shown for example that women are perceived as less capable of protecting themselves against deception and that men have special duties to protect women. The hypothesis is also of a piece with recent work on moral typecasting, which explores how attributions of agency and patiency affect perceptions of moral wrongfulness, as there is evidence that men tend to be associated with agency and women with patiency.

We report the results of three studies designed to test the hypothesis. We use simple vignette experiments to elicit subjects’ off-the-cuff intuitions about men and women deceiving and being deceived. We examine the effects of gender by randomly varying party names (Ashley or Josh), by randomly varying the gender associated with a product (e.g., beard trimmer vs. hair dryer), and by randomly varying the gendered noun identifying the victims of a fraud (brothers vs. sisters). We ask subjects to report on their reactions to different deceptive situations by reporting on the ethicality of a behavior, on their support for a regulatory approach, and on their preference for level of punishment. We also explore differential responses of male- and female-identified subjects.

We find preliminary support for the proposition that men deceiving women and firms deceiving women are regarded as somewhat more problematic than men or firms deceiving men. We find suggestive but limited evidence that paternalistic regulation of women’s transactions is more welcome than that of regulation of men’s consumer choices. We find robust support for the proposition that women are more likely than men to regard deception in the marketplace as an ethical wrong, and that corporations are viewed as male. The studies reported here also suggest the challenges of studying how the gender of deceiver and deceived might affect moral and legal judgments. Subjects’ politics, for example, appear to correlate both with the effect of parties’ gender on their judgments and with subjects’ views on the appropriateness of regulation. We suggest how future research might disaggregate these effects and explore the mechanisms behind gender-driven moral and legal judgments regarding deception.