In August 2018, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index broke records as the longest recorded bull market. Two months later, a precipitous sell-off erased all gains for the year. Turbulence in the economy makes for wary investors and consumers, but there’s a less obvious group whose fates may also be tied to the market: criminal defendants facing the possibility of a death sentence.
In a recently published article, my collaborators and I explored how economic resources influence punishment preferences—specifically, support for the death penalty. Although capital punishment is an issue that evokes strong feelings and heated debate, our research suggests that feelings about the death penalty are not immutable. Rather, features of our broader environment—like whether the stock market is soaring or plunging—influence our psychology and incline us toward or away from different decisions and behaviors. With respect to capital punishment, believing that resources are scarce leads people to view the death penalty in a more favorable light.
To understand why resource availability influences decisions about whether or not to end lives, consider the role resources can play in decisions about creating new lives. Deciding when to have children involves weighing the risks and benefits of haste versus delay. Waiting to have children might mean you’re better equipped to care for your future offspring, but also runs the risk of missing the opportunity altogether. Resource scarcity, as one major source of future uncertainty, can tip the scales in favor of speeding up the reproductive clock. For example, in a study of low-income black teenagers, Arline Geronimus concluded that high pregnancy rates in her sample were not driven by an absence of family planning but by concerns of early “weathering” and poor future health.
As this example illustrates, the “safer” choice in times of prosperity might be a relatively risky choice in times of paucity. This same logic can also be applied to deciding what to do with someone who has committed a serious crime (e.g., murder): do you permanently remove the threat (by executing them) or do you leave open the possibility of rehabilitation?
Each choice carries a trade-off: If you remove the threat, you also preclude the possibility that the person might contribute positively to society in the future. If you give them a second chance, you leave yourself open to the possibility of repeat offending. As in the previous example, the amount of resources at your disposal influences the riskiness of the choice. If resources are scarce, and the future seems precarious, the potential costs of keeping a serious offender around may be seen as prohibitively large.
We therefore hypothesized that perceptions of resource scarcity would incline people towards elimination-focused punishment, increasing their favorability toward the death penalty. To test our prediction, in two experimental studies we presented participants with photographs and a story about the state of the economy. Half of our participants read information suggesting that the economy was on the verge of collapse, with both unemployment and home foreclosures on the rise.
The other participants read information suggesting that the economy was on an upswing with high job growth and an increasing number of new home purchases. We then measured participants’ attitudes toward the death penalty. In both studies, we found that participants who had read about the bad economy were more favorable toward the death penalty than those who read about the good economy.
Importantly, our effects weren’t explained by other variables that have been shown to predict death penalty attitudes in the past; whether male or female, conservative or liberal, those exposed to scarcity concerns became more favorable toward the death penalty. We also tested against the possibility that resource scarcity was leading to an increase in general negativity (i.e., overall callousness) and found that this was not the case.
Our participants weren’t becoming indiscriminately coldhearted; scarcity was specifically shaping preferences for capital punishment, and this was happening because participants were becoming less tolerant of possible repeat offending. In other words, when resources seemed to be scarce, giving offenders a second chance just didn’t seem worth the risk.
Despite the overall strength of the current economy, the Federal Reserve chairman has urged caution. The threat of another recession looms in the back of many Americans’ minds. And for jurors evaluating death-row defendants, their beliefs about capital punishment may, in fact, hinge on their perceptions of capital.