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November 25, 2016

"Intuitive Jurisprudence: Early Reasoning About the Functions of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new research essay from a group of academics connected to the University of Chicago's Department of Psychology.  The piece, authored by Jessica Bregant, Alex Shaw and Katherine Kinzler, has been posted on SSRN with this abstract:

Traditional research on lay beliefs about punishment is often hampered by the complex nature of the question and its implications.  We present a new intuitive jurisprudence approach that utilizes the insights of developmental psychology to shed light on the origins of punishment intuitions, along with the first empirical study to test the approach.

Data from 80 child participants are presented, providing evidence that children expect punishment to serve as a specific deterrent, but finding no evidence that children expect punishment to have a general deterrent or rehabilitative effect.  We also find that children understand punishment in a way that is consistent with the expressive theory of law and with expressive retributivism, and we present evidence that an understanding of the value of punishment to the social contract develops throughout childhood.

Finally, we discuss the application of the intuitive jurisprudence approach to other important legal questions.

November 25, 2016 at 08:34 AM | Permalink


Punishment has technical features that increase effectiveness. Biologically it induces the avoidance part of post-traumatic stress disorder. This serves a survival function, and is promoted by evolution. That effect effect includes social learning, which the witnessing of others punished.

I support pre-law requirements, the way medical schools allow any college major, but require 4 pre-med courses.

One required pre-law course should be behavioral analysis/operant conditioning. Punishment is the sole tool of the law, and lawyers should learn its technical aspects. These include the effect on subsequent behavior of timing, random vs consistent application, severity of punishment, social learning, low risk vs high risk, durations of effect.

With regard to the criminal law, some people with a disorder cannot learn from punishment. Some people are so strongly rewarded by crime, the low risk of punishment, that punishment is a waste of time.

Finally, punishment should be cheap to the tax payer, for example, corporal punishment. Prison should be considered a form of incapacitation, not used for punishment. It should be used for those not responding to punishment with busy criminal careers. I believe, that idea is informally in operation in the minds of most sentencing judges. Almost everyone in prison now has failed to respond to lesser remedies or "punishments."

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 25, 2016 10:50:51 AM

It's the season of Santa Claus and his lesser known relative!

Posted by: Joe | Nov 25, 2016 11:04:41 AM

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