Research Shows Support For The Dealth Penalty Tied With Resource Scarcity

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December 7, 2018 - 6:45am

New research in four studies conducted by researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows opinions about the death penalty are swayed by hypothetical and actual resource scarcity. Ashley Votruba, assistant professor of psychology at UNL and Keelah Williams of Hamilton College conducted the studies. NET News sat down with Votruba to discuss the findings.


Brandon McDermott, NET News: Your research shows countries with lower per capita income levels and lower life expectancy are more likely to have the death penalty. Can you tell us about the results of your research?

Ashley Votruba, UNL:  We were interested in looking at this question – does the availability of resources influence whether or not a country maintains the death penalty?

Ashley Votruba's research included four studies which focused on the federal level, state level and two studies about how resource scarcity plays into the idea of supporting the death penalty for individuals.

So, what we did was we looked at the Inequality Adjusted Human Development Index and this is a measure that looks at features like personal income, education level and life expectancy. What we did was look to see if that predicted whether or not to maintain the death penalty – and it did – so countries that have lower human development, those that are more resource scarce tended to have the death penalty.

McDermott: Why is that?

Votruba: There are a number of different factors that could be at play and our research team acknowledges that, but one of the things that we think is influential is this idea of the availability of resources. So to the extent our human psychology has evolved to be sensitive to resources in our environment, we are going to alter our punishment strategies. So we believe – and we predicted –  and this came to fruition in our research – that as resources are scarce, people are more likely to support harsher elimination focused punishment strategies like the death penalty. That's what we see at an international level in various countries as well as the state level.

McDermott: What about individuals with lower income levels and life expectancy? How do they respond to the idea of capital punishment?

Votruba: As a psychologist my meat and potatoes is of course looking at individual psychology – what's going on in the heads of people. What we did was take these findings and bring them into an experimental context in the lab. Participants came in and we put them in a scenario, so we told them resources are abundant, things are looking really good in our economy or resources are scarce, things are difficult right now. We looked to see how that affected their support for the death penalty and what we found is people who were made to believe resources were really scarce – times were hard – they were more likely to support the death penalty and this effect persisted even when we controlled for things like the socioeconomic status of the particular participant, as well as their political affiliation.

McDermott: What is so important about resources and the potential for scarcity and how does this concept play into individuals supporting the death penalty?

Votruba: I’d just like to back up a little bit and talk about some of the research that's gone before. A lot of this research has focused on more approximate factors – things like individual political affiliation, cultural beliefs, and beliefs about social freedom – those sorts of things. This is one of the first studies that's really looked at the effect of our environment, our ecology on people's beliefs and what we've seen – and what we predicted – is that the availability of resources is going to change people's cost-benefit analysis. How they're seeing risks associated with offenders and when resources are scarce people are going to change that cost-benefit analysis, they're going to see the risk is greater and that's going to lead them towards favoring the death penalty. This is really important for just understanding how death penalty attitudes emerge – why we have the attitudes that we do.

McDermott: Were population size or murder rate significant predictors of being for or against the death penalty?

Votruba: In our second study looking at things from the state level, we examined population size and murder rates as potential factors that would impact it – and so we could control for those factors –and we did not find that they had a significant effect.

McDermott: Your research also shows that “although the effect of environmental scarcity may be relatively small, this effect could have profound implications for public policy.” What kind of profound implications can it have?

Votruba: As researchers are often concerned about, “does an effect exist?” but it's also important to take into consideration how big is this effect – what's the real impact of it? Here in our statistical analysis, we see a small effect size, but when you multiply that – and think about it in the context of something that's deeply debated like the death penalty – it can have a profound important effect. If you look at voting behavior, decision making at a legislative or political level — this could have a really, really big impact. If you look to our first two studies which look at this issue from a country’s perspective or a state’s perspective – it is indicating that an impact is happening.

McDermott: You referenced the four different studies that were used to find conclusions here. Can you elaborate on the details of these studies?

Votruba: This research paradigm adopted what we call sort of a triangulation approach. We were trying to look at this from multiple different levels of research. So we started by focusing on the country level –do countries maintain the death penalty as a result of their resource availability? We found support there. Then we went and looked at state levels – so within the United States what we see is that state per capita income predicts whether or not a state maintains the death penalty – states with lower per capita income are more likely to have the death penalty as a punishment option.

That persists even when we control for things like population size, as well as murder rate and state political ideology. From there, we have this sort of converging evidence suggesting that there is an effect. In our last two studies, we take it into the individual psychology level and focus on what's going on in people's individual attitudes and beliefs.

With those studies, we bring them into the lab we manipulate perceptions of resource availability and find again this convergent evidence that when in a resource-scarce environment – so when they're made to believe times are tough – people are more likely to support the death penalty. In our fourth and final study, that's where we really get at the question of why.

We find that there is this link between the availability of resources is leading people to have a different cost-benefit analysis, they are perceiving the risks as being greater and that increases their likelihood of supporting the death penalty. In these four studies, we really have some strong converging evidence that this effect exists at the different levels.

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