When people are deciding the appropriate punishment for a crime, they’re most interested in ensuring that the perpetrator gets the payback they deserve. They’re less interested in practical issues relating to whether the perpetrator needs to be locked up to protect the public, or in how much of a deterrent to other potential criminals the punishment will be.
Kevin Carlsmith at Colgate University asked 42 students to imagine they were responsible for deciding the punishment to be given to a criminal. To help them come to a decision, they had five chances to choose different categories of information about the criminal and the crime.
They could select information relevant to issues of retribution (e.g. how much harm the criminal caused; how much intent they had), incarceration (e.g. how likely the criminal was to offend again), or deterrent (e.g. how much publicity the crime attracted).
Carlsmith found the students were more likely to choose information pertinent to retribution first, and that choosing such information led them to be more confident in their sentencing decision. In a further experiment, students were allocated a random selection of information to help them make their sentencing decision – in this case, those students given information pertinent to retribution tended to be more confident in their punishment decision than the other students.
“Although people say they value utilitarian goals, when it comes to actually seeking information and assigning sentences, their behaviour reveals that they care most about retribution”, Carlsmith concluded.
Carlsmith, K.M. (2006). The roles of retribution and utility in determining punishment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 437-451.