Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Death penalty motivation

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Death penalty motivation:
What motivates people to support the death penalty?

Overview[edit | edit source]

The death penalty, also known as capital punishment, is a government sanctioned practice used as a method of punishment by the state for committing a crime. Crimes that are punishable by death are called capital crimes (or offences or felonies), and they are often reserved for serious offences such as murder, terrorism, and drug trafficking, however, capital crimes vary across countries (Unnever, 2010). The death penalty has a long and gruesome history and is still used in contemporary times in certain countries throughout the world.

A significant contributor to the ongoing use of capital punishment is public support. Psychology explains individual’s motivation to support the death penalty as originating from fearing for their safety (Unnever, 2010). The individuals fear manifests itself in a variety of attitudes which are socially reinforced (Suls, 2013). Research in the USA has found numerous similarities between supporters of the death penalty (Unnever, 2010). In the fight to abolish the death penalty, abolitionists point to multiple factors such as the complex nature of individuals beliefs and the claim that capital punishment and the conditions on death row are a breach of human rights.

Focus questions:
  • How does psychology explain motivation to support the death penalty?
  • What are the individual predictors of support?
  • What are some of the current issues surrounding the death penalty debate?
  • Can individuals attitudes change?

History and contemporary use[edit | edit source]

Capital punishment has been practiced as a method of crime deterrence across all known societies. Historical records show that even the most ancient tribal societies utilized capital punishment (Reggio, 1999). The earliest written document supporting the death penalty was the Code of Hammurabi, of King Babylon which was written around 1760 BC, and was the first to coin the term "an eye for an eye" (Reggio, 1999). In ancient times, the death penalty was punishment for a range of crimes (eg. publication of insulting songs, perjury, and murder of a freeman). Forms of execution were often cruel and included drowning, crucifixion, impalement, stoning, and burial alive (Reggio, 1999). The most notorious execution in BC was around 399 BC of Greek philosopher Socrates, who was required to drink poison after being charged with heresy and corruption of youth (Reggio, 1999).

Post BC times, Britain had the largest influence over colonies and by the 10th Century, hanging from the gallows became the most frequent execution method (Reggio, 1999). During the middle ages, capital punishment was generally accompanied by torture, for example, boiling to death in oil. By the 1700s, 222 crimes were punishable by death in Britain. However, by 1823 reforms began to take place and by 1837, many capital offences were abolished, a trend that continued throughout Britain and Europe (Reggio, 1999). In the American colonies, capital punishment was reserved for the most severe crimes, such as robbery, murder, and rape, however, each state had different laws. Over the course of the 18th and 19th Centuries, legal bodies found faster and less painful methods of execution, including hanging, firing squad, electrocution, and beheading (Reggio, 1999).

Contemporary use of the death penalty retains many of the crimes listed from over 200 years ago, such as murder, rape, and robbery, however, capital crimes still vary between countries (Unnever, 2010). Many of the execution techniques have also been retained with the addition of lethal injection (, 2019). Since the 1970s, 70% of nations worldwide have abolished the death penalty either legally or in practice (no executions in the last decade) (Hudson, 2000). Currently, there are four major strongholds that support the continued use of the death penalty

Figure 1. World map of death penalty use.
  1. Asia, primarily China.
  2. 29 states of the USA.
  3. 11 countries of the Caribbean
  4. Muslim majority states of the Middle East

Amnesty International recorded at least 690 executions across 20 countries in 2018, down by 31% from 2017 and the lowest number recorded in the past decade. By the end of 2018, 2,531 new death sentences were awarded across 54 countries, bringing the global total of people under the sentence of death to 19,336.

Public opinion[edit | edit source]

Public opinion on the death penalty varies considerably depending on the country and the nature of the crime committed. The Death Penalty Information Center provides international poll results. However, this section will focus on the USA.

Statistics on public opinion[edit | edit source]

Gallop is an American analytics and advisory company. Since 1936, The Gallup Poll has tracked Americans' views on the death penalty. The below tables display their findings (See, In depth: Topics A to Z. Death Penalty.):

Why do you support the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?

2014 Oct 12-15 2003 May 19-21 2001 Feb 19-21 1991 Jun 13-16
% % % %
An eye for an eye/They took a life/Fits the crime 35 37 48 50
Save taxpayers money/Cost associated with prison 14 11 20 13
They deserve it 14 13 6 --
They will repeat it/Keep them from repeating it 7 7 6 19
Deterrent for potential crimes/Set and example 6 11 10 13

Why do you oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?

2014 Oct 12-15 2003 May 19-21 1991 Jun 13-16
% % %
Wrong to take a life 40 46 41
Persons may be wrongly convicted 17 25 11
Punishment should be left to God/religious belief 17 13 17

What does research say about public opinion?[edit | edit source]

Cost: (

  • The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice estimates the current death penalty system in California costs $137 million dollars annually; it would cost 11.5 million without the death penalty.
  • In Kansas, death penalty cases cost 70% more than comparable non-death penalty cases. The median cost of a death penalty case from pre-trial through to execution is $1.26 million. Non-death penalty cases median cost is $740,000.
  • In Tennessee, on average, death penalty trials cost 48% more than non-death penalty trials.
  • In Florida, the average total cost of each person executed is $24 million.

Death penalty cases incur such high costs because of the seriousness and complexity of seeking the death penalty. First, the prosecution must go through a preliminary hearing to decide if they have enough evidence to convene a grand jury. The jury selection process is more complex and these individuals must be willing to impose a sentence of death. Finally, there must be another hearing before the trial can begin. On average a capital trial costs three-times more than a non-capital trial (Amadeo, 2019). Death row inmates incur higher health care costs as many of them have significant mental health conditions and due to the extended time spent on death row they are an aging population. Death row requires higher levels of staff and therefore, have increased expenditure on wages. Finally, the cost of the drugs used in the lethal injection is rising as many European suppliers no longer want to be associated with the death penalty. In 2011, the average cost per dose was $83.55, by 2013 states paid between $1,500 and $16,500 for a single dose (Amadeo, 2019).

Deterrence: (Death Penalty Information center)

A report by the National Research Council investigating the effect of the death penalty on murder rates suggests this notion is "fundamentally flawed". Crime reports from the FBI show that the highest murder rate is in The South (USA), yet this region accounts for over 80% of executions and the Northeast, which has less than 1% of all executions, has the lowest rate. Academics in the disciplines of Law, Criminology and Social Science have suggested the research articles supporting the effect of deterrence suffer significant methodological weaknesses and therefore, should not influence policy judgments. For more on this issue see: Uses and Abuses of Empirical Evidence in the Death Penalty Debate(Donohue & Wolfers, 2006).

Psychological theory[edit | edit source]

A full explanation of peoples[grammar?] motivation to support the death penalty requires the combination of two psychological theories. Together these theories provide an explanation of the source of motivation to support the death penalty as well as the cognitive and social aspects that maintain personal beliefs surrounding the support or opposition of its use.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
  • Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory describes five basic human needs hierarchically ordered, see figure 2. The second of these is a need for safety which Maslow describes as the dominating goal that effects[grammar?] a persons[grammar?] current and future outlook on the world and personal philosophy (Maslow, 1943).
  • Applying a need for safety to the support of the death penalty suggests that humans do so in reaction to feeling unsafe in their world and their communities (Maslow, 1943).
  • Research supports that individuals with high fears of crime endorse the use of harsh, punitive justice methods (Unnever, 2010).

Social comparison theory[edit | edit source]

  • Social comparison theory states that humans have an innate drive to evaluate their opinions and abilities. As beliefs and attributions are not always measurable objectively humans turn to comparisons with others to validate how correct their beliefs are (Festinger, 1954).
  • The literature surrounding the death penalty has found numerous similarities in people's beliefs and social affiliations and their level of support or opposition for the death penalty (Falco & Freiburger, 2011). Social comparison theory would suggest these similarities are due to people seeking to validate their beliefs with people who hold similar beliefs and through this process strengthen the validity of their own beliefs (Suls, 2013).
  • Finally, downward comparisons between an individual who supports the death penalty and the perpetrator of a capital crime allows the individual to maintain a positive self-evaluation as they see the perpetrator as inferior to themselves. This attribution allows the individual to justify their opinion.

Predictors of support[edit | edit source]

There is currently limited global research on predictors for support of the death penalty, however, what is available suggests they are reflective of the predictors found in the USA (Unnever, 2010). Common characteristics of people who support the death penalty include: race (white); sex (males); political ideologies (conservatives); education level (low); religiosity (belief in a vengeful God); support for punitive punishment; high level fear of crime and perceived salience; victimhood experience; and empathy levels (low) (Unnever, 2010). This section will focus on: Race and sex.

Race[edit | edit source]

White Americans are significantly more supportive of the death penalty than African Americans and an average gap of twenty percent has been consistently observed between them. Furthermore, support levels and the size of this gap have endured over decades of polling and this gap has been fairly constant suggesting that increases/decreases in level of support are relatively equal (Cochran & Chamblin, 2006). There are two major views that attempt to explain this gap. First, the "social convergence" idea suggests that the racial divide is not enduring and will narrow as African Americans come to share similar social characteristics with White Americans who support the death penalty (Unnever & Cullen, 2007). The second, sees race as a "master status" that, in the area of the death penalty, creates an unbridgeable divide between African Americans and Whites. For Whites, the death penalty is another sanction in the criminal justice system, and it carries little racial symbolism. For African Americans, however, the use of lethal force to punish has special significance as a sanction that has been historically applied unfairly and used as a measure of control (Unnever & Cullen, 2007). In short, the master status predicts an enduring racial divide as race trumps other social explanations, certainly, this is what the literature reflects. When controlling for the effects of social explanations such as socioeconomic status and political ideology race remains a significant predictor of support for the death penalty (Cochran & Chamblin, 2006; Unnever & Cullen, 2007).

Sex[edit | edit source]

Men are significantly more supportive of the death penalty than women (women generally support prevention and rehabilitation over punishment) with an average difference of twelve percent, ranking second behind race as a predictor (Cochran & Sanders, 2009). Research on this topic has found that women who support the death penalty are generally characteristically similar to men who support it (eg. White, political conservatives). Some researchers have theorised that women are less likely to support the death penalty because they are more caring and less punitive than men. For example, Stack (2000) found that punitiveness predicts support for the death penalty in men but not women. It is argued this is due to women being socialised to be caring, nurturing and more empathetic and this orients decision making towards receptivity, relatedness, and responsiveness (Worthen, Sharp & Rodgers, 2012). Men on the other hand are socialised to have a strong orientation toward justice and therefore are more supportive of punitive methods. Cochran and Sanders (2009) examined the gender gap in death penalty support and found that the effect of gender could be eliminated when empathetic concern was considered. However, in their study on the gender gap in death penalty support, Unnever & Cullen (2007) discovered that sex was still a significant predictor of support even after controlling for a range of factors such as gender socialisation. Overall, the full effect of race and sex on support for capital punishment is yet to be explained empirically (Worthen, Sharp & Rodgers, 2012).

Current issues[edit | edit source]

Capital punishment is a topic of ongoing debate. There are multiple factors that are taken into consideration in the fight to remove the death sentence. Including:

Complexity of beliefs affect support[edit | edit source]

Strong public support is arguably one of the strongest predictors of why countries retain the use of the death penalty in their criminal justice system. Therefore, it is fundamental that the measure of death penalty opinion be subject to scrutiny. Research from the USA shows that individuals opinions are complex and subject to change based on offender and offense characteristics.

Falco & Freiburger (2011) ran a study to measure the complexity of death penalty beliefs using focus groups. The groups were given vignettes of capital cases and asked to identify and discuss what form of punishment they thought was most appropriate. The crime vignettes were based on actual capital cases that resulted in a death penalty sentence (participants were not aware of this). The findings of this study show:

  • All participants held both positive (eg. safety for the community, deter other criminals) and negative beliefs (eg. wrongful executions, sending a violent message) about the death penalty regardless of their support or opposition of its use.
  • Participants found it difficult to explicitly label their views as either supporting or opposing when asked about specific groups (eg. mentally ill, juveniles).
  • Opinions wavered depending on certain circumstances (eg. people were less likely to support the use of the death penalty if the offender was female, if the perpetrator was intoxicated, what age the victim was and how many victims there were).
  • A pattern of emotional triggers associated with the support of the death penalty were identified: motive of the offender, relationship of the victim to the offender, and perceived dangerousness of the offender/chance of rehabilitation affected people's views.

Overall, these findings suggest that public opinion of the death penalty is extremely complex. Furthermore, the current method of measuring public opinion (asking if people support of oppose its use) is not a true representation of people's beliefs and only allows for a portion of them to be assessed (Falco & Freiburger, 2011).

Abolition of the death penalty and the human rights movement[edit | edit source]

Abolition of the death penalty world wide was slow until the 1970's[grammar?], since then 70% of the world has abolished capital punishment. A major contributor to this rapid decline was the creation of the Universal Deceleration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 by the United Nations (UN).

Abolitionists of the death penalty argue that the practice is a violation of human rights, specifically:

  • Article 3 - Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
  • Article 5 - No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

International law says the use of the death penalty must be restricted to the most severe crimes, such as murder. Therefore, it does not challenge the use of the death penalty directly but rather the sentence of death after a torturous period of delay. The argument is that execution after prolonged delays in harsh conditions constitutes cruel and inhuman punishment (Hudson, 2000). However, other organisations such as Amnesty International believe that the death penalty violates the right to life and is unacceptable under all circumstances.

Death row phenomenon[edit | edit source]

The length of time a prisoner spends on death row has been increasing,[grammar?] in the USA, inmates often spend at least a decade on death row while 40% will spend more than 20 years awaiting execution. Long stays on death row have become increasingly common and have increased from an average of six years in 1984 to fifteen-and-a-half in 2013 (Deathpenaltyinfo, 2019).

The psychological impact of the conditions on death row coupled with the extensive and uncertain time individuals will spend on death row has given rise to the psychological construct of the "death row phenomenon". Research has consistently shown that inmates exposed to solitary confinement experience a range of negative mental health symptoms such as paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts, debilitating depression, and stress (Harrison & Tamony, 2010). These symptoms are argued to be the result of the sensory and social deprivation which prisoners on death row face.

Wrongful executions[edit | edit source]

Due to the fallibility of human judgement, the death penalty carries an inherent risk of wrongful execution. The Death Penalty Information Center suggests that more than 165 people who have been wrongfully sentenced to death in the USA have been exonerated of all charges and set free since 1973 (Death Penalty Information Center, 2019). The number of exoneration's have also been rising from a yearly average of 3.08 from 1973 to 1998 to a yearly average of 7 post 1998 (Unnever & Cullen, 2005). The number of inmates released from prison is equal to nearly 15% of those executed (Unnever & Cullen, 2005). Unfortunately, it cannot be known how many of 1506 individuals who have been executed since 1976 were innocent of their crimes. Currently, there remain many cases with strong evidence of innocence. See: Executed But Possibly Innocent.

The wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. Texas - Convicted: 1992; Executed: 2004.

On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the home Cameron Todd Willingham shared with his wife and three daughters. Willingham, who was asleep when the fire started survived the blaze, however, his three daughters did not. At the time of the fire, Willingham's wife was shopping for Christmas presents.

At Willingham’s 1992 trial, prosecutors claimed he intentionally set fire to his home in order to kill his own children. He was convicted based on the testimony of forensic experts who believed the fire had been deliberately set and on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said Willingham had confessed to him. On October 29, 1992, Willingham was sentenced to death and was executed February 17, 2004.

After examining evidence of the Willingham case, four national arson experts concluded that the original investigation was flawed, and it was possible the fire was accidental. The independent investigation found that the prosecutors and arson investigators used arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances. And that the informant was given preferential treatment before being asked for his testimony.

Changing attitudes[edit | edit source]

Public opinion is closely tied to public policy on the death penalty and it is often cited as a major contributor to the retention of its use. In democratic societies, the public express their view during a political election by voting in a representative that reflects their views (Unnever, 2010). Because the influence of voting citizens is so significant it is important to understand the effect of education about the criminal justice system on attitudes and voting behaviour (Mandracchia, Shaw & Morgan, 2013). In an exploratory study, Mandracchia, Shaw and Morgan (2013) examined the effect of taking a forensic psychology class on a range of attitudes related to criminal justice (eg. prisoners, prison reform, the death penalty, the insanity defense) in comparison to a psychology class not focused on criminal justice. Both groups attitudes were measured at the beginning and end of the course; the results show:

  • Students in the forensic psychology class developed more liberal and progressive attitudes towards prisoner reform.
  • The forensic psychology students became less supportive of the death penalty.
  • Both groups became more approving of the insanity defence, however, the forensic psychology students were to a higher degree.

These findings suggest that education, that logically challenges previously held moral and ideological values, can produce attitudinal change. Further, this knowledge has implications for public education campaigns to educate citizens on key criminal justice issues, therefore, having the potential to impact criminal justice policy through voting behaviour.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Psychological theory suggests that motivation to support the death penalty originates from a fear for one's safety (Maslow, 1943). Beyond fear is the manifestation of attitudes that then predict an individual’s support for capital punishment. Through the process of social comparisons individuals reinforce their beliefs and justify their views, allowing them to maintain a positive self-evaluation (Suls, 2013). The most consistent predictors of support for the death penalty is being white (race) and male (sex). The reason for this has not been completely established empirically, however, what is available suggests these differences are at least partially due to other known predictors such as education level, income, political ideology and gender socialisation (Cochran & Chamblin, 2006; Unnever & Cullen, 2007). Although the death penalty has had a significant role in criminal punishment throughout human history, contemporary justice systems have begun to move away from this practice. Recognition of the complexity of human beliefs calls into question the validity of dichotomous public opinion polling as multiple factors can affect an individual’s support (Falco & Freiburger, 2011). Further, since the creation of the Human Rights Act, the death penalty has been accused of breaching two fundamental human rights, the right to life and not to be subject to cruel and inhuman punishment. As a result of the conditions on death row, many inmates experience significant decreases in their mental health, known as the death row phenomenon (Harrison & Tamony, 2010). A sentence of death inherently carries the risk of a wrongful execution and due to the finality of executing an individual, wrongful executions are cited by abolitionist as a prominent reason to abolish the death penalty (Deathpenaltyinfo, 2019). Finally, individuals who support the death penalty often believe it is a more economical way to punish serious offenders and endorse it as an effective deterrent mechanism. Yet, research investigating the accuracy of these beliefs generally shows the opposite. Through education, individuals can have their moral and ideological values challenged and this has been shown to produce attitude change (Mandracchia, Shaw & Morgan, 2013). This attitude change has implications for education campaigns and potential public policy change (Mandracchia, Shaw & Morgan, 2013).

See also[edit | edit source]

  1. Death and emotion (Book chapter, 2016)
  2. Death anxiety stages (Book chapter, 2019)
  3. Violent crime motivation (Book chapter, 2010)
  4. Social comparison, social media, and emotion (Book chapter, 2019)

References[edit | edit source]

Amadeo, K. (2019, June 6). Why the Death Penalty Costs More Than Life in Prison. Retrieved from

Cochran, J. K., & Chamlin, M. B. (2006). The enduring racial divide in death penalty support. Journal of Criminal Justice, 34, 85-99. doi:

Cochran, J. K., & Sanders, B. A. (2009). The gender gap in death penalty support: An exploratory study. Journal of Criminal Justice, 37, 525-533.

Gallup poll. Death penalty. (2019). Retrieved from

Death penalty information center. (2019). Retrieved from

Donohue III, J. J., & Wolfers, J. (2006). Uses and abuses of empirical evidence in the death penalty debate (No. w11982). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Falco, D. L., & Freiburger, T. L. (2011). Public opinion and the death penalty: A qualitative approach. The Qualitative Report,16, 830-847. Retrieved from

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human relations,7, 117-140.

Harrison, K., & Tamony, A. (2010). Death row phenomenon, death row syndrome and their affect on capital cases in the US. Internet Journal of Criminology, 1. Retrieved from

Hudson, P. (2000). Does the death row phenomenon violate a prisoner's human rights under international law?. European Journal of International Law, 11, 833-856. doi:

Mandracchia, J. T., Shaw, L. B., & Morgan, R. D. (2013). What’s with the attitude? Changing attitudes about criminal justice issues. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 40, 95-113. doi:

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review,50, 370. doi:

Reggio, M. H. (1999). History of the Death Penalty. Retrieved from

Suls, J., & Wheeler, L. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of social comparison: Theory and Research. Springer Science & Business Media. Retrieved from

The innocence project. (2010, September 13). Retrived from

Unnever, J. D., & Cullen, F. T. (2007). Reassessing the racial divide in support for capital punishment: The continuing significance of race. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 44, 124-158. doi:

Unnever, J. (2010). Global support for the death penalty. Punishment & Society,12, 463-484. doi:

Worthen, M. G., Sharp, S. F., & Rodgers, F. R. (2012). Gay and lesbian individuals’ attitudes toward the death penalty: An exploratory study of the roles of empathic concern and political beliefs. Criminal Justice Review,37, 239-261. doi:

External links[edit | edit source]