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Death as a punishment is an ancient concept. It is also controversial. Worldwide, over 140 countries have outlawed the death penalty, yet in over 50 it remains the law of the land.
Most research on death penalty attitudes searches for explanations in cultural influences or individual political or religious beliefs. An interdisciplinary research team of social psychologists, evolutionary psychologists and legal scholars from the Arizona State University Department of Psychology have identified a different influence on how people think about punishment: the availability of resources. In a study currently in press at Evolution and Human Behavior, the team tested how resource scarcity or abundance was related to endorsement of the death penalty across the globe and among individuals. The paper was made available online last week.
Instead of focusing on how political views or religion affect the perception of the death penalty, the ASU researchers tested whether available resources influenced punishment for serious offenses. This idea — that resource scarcity could determine punishment — comes from approaches to understanding how humans evolved to deal effectively with different environments.
“To understand why people feel the way they do about the death penalty, we looked beyond individual differences to features of the environment that might affect people’s punishment attitudes, sometimes in ways outside of their conscious awareness,” said Keelah Williams, who earned her doctorate in psychology and law degree from ASU in 2017 and is now an assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College in New York. Williams is the lead author on the study.
In four studies, using both archival and experimental methods, the researchers examined how the availability of resources might shape death penalty beliefs.
The first study assessed the relationship between resource scarcity and the presence of capital punishment in nations around the world. The researchers discovered that countries with greater resource scarcity were more likely to have a death penalty.
“Some might attribute the differences in countries' death penalty laws to numerous factors including cultural differences,” said Ashley Votruba, who also earned her doctorate in psychology and law degree from ASU in 2017 and is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. To limit cultural differences at the country level as a possible explanatory factor, the researchers next focused on the United States, where the status of the death penalty is determined independently by each state and is currently legal in 31 states. Replicating the findings from the global study, U.S. states with lower per capita income were more likely to have the death penalty as a punishment option.
Based on the results from the first two studies — that countries and individual states with fewer resources are more likely to have the death penalty — the researchers decided to test for a causal link between resource scarcity and endorsement of the death penalty.
In two additional experiments, the researchers had participants view pictures and read a short story about the economy. The story and pictures either detailed economic hardships like high unemployment and frequent home foreclosures or economic prosperity like high job growth and wages, rising stock prices and many new home purchases. After viewing the photographs and reading the story, the participants answered questions about their attitudes toward the death penalty, along with their political views and socioeconomic status.
In the first experiment, people randomly assigned to read about economic hardship tended to view the death penalty more favorably than those who read about economic prosperity, and this finding was independent of political ideology and socioeconomic status.
Because the finding was statistically small, in the next experiment the researchers applied a “death qualification” criterion, also known as the Witherspoon rule, to the participants. The participants were questioned in the same way jurors serving on capital cases are screened. If jurors are staunchly opposed to, or staunchly in favor of, the death penalty, they are disqualified from serving on a capital case because jurors have to be willing to make the decision about the death penalty based on the evidence presented. The researchers reasoned that participants already committed to their death penalty beliefs would be less likely to be influenced by fleeting changes in their perceptions of resource availability.
In addition, participants were queried about the riskiness of keeping convicted murderers alive, by responding to statements such as “Keeping convicted murderers alive is too great a risk for society to take” or “The death penalty is the only way to ensure a convicted murderer will not murder again.” These statements probed a potential mechanism for how resource scarcity affects the death penalty: resource scarcity leads people to see offenders as posing greater risks to society. Like the previous experiment, participants then answered questions about their views on the death penalty.
Participants who were eligible to participate as jurors on death penalty cases were especially likely to support the death penalty if they had first read about economic hardship rather than economic prosperity. The perceived costs of allowing convicted murderers to live predicted this effect: Perceived scarcity led people to view convicted murderers as greater risks to society, which then predicted their greater endorsement of the death penalty.
Overall, the study findings suggest that the way a group deals with members who threaten the safety of others is influenced by whether people feel they are facing a world that is economically secure or not, said Michael Saks, Regents’ Professor of law and psychology at ASU. Saks, who is senior author on the study, added that the findings also suggest how society assigns punishment is fundamentally driven by the need for material well-being, and philosophical principles are developed afterwards.
“One would think that fluctuating perceptions of resource availability wouldn’t shape beliefs about something as morally profound and consequential as the death penalty,” offered Steven Neuberg, Foundation Professor and chair of the Department of Psychology. “These findings, along with others, help support the view that aspects of contemporary psychology rest on a deep, evolved rationality. They also have more immediate, practical implications: The ability of scientific psychology to better understand the peripheral factors that shape beliefs about the death penalty may be, for some, the difference between life and death.”
The study was completed at ASU while Williams and Votruba earned their doctorates in psychology and degrees in law.