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Professor Adam Benforado Discusses the Motivations for Punishment

April 02, 2012

Professor Adam Benforado spoke about a study he and Geoffrey Goodwin, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted to determine what motivates people to punish.

Retribution and deterrence are usually the two motivating factors behind punishment, Benforado said. However, Benforado claimed, depending on the crime and the victim, the degree to which those factors serve as a motivation for punishment may vary.

In their study, Benforado and Goodwin sought to isolate retribution as a factor and measure the degree to which it affects the nature of punishment. To do so, Benforado and Good surveyed people and asked them, in various scenarios, what the proper punishment should be where an animal harmed different types of “victims,” from inanimate objects to adults, to young children. Benforado theorized that measuring punishment responses where animals were the transgressors is a perfect way to isolate retribution as a motivation for punishment because deterrence plays no role where the transgressor is not conscious of why it is being punished.

What Benforado and Goodwin discovered was that even where the transgressors were not human, retributive factors were still at play with people motivated to give the animal what it deserved for harming someone or something. However, as Beforado pointed out, retribution was more strongly linked to scenarios where the victim was human and appeared more vulnerable, such as when a small child was involved.

The study shows that retribution can be applied more broadly, such as situations where corporations are transgressors, Benforado said. Beforado also suggested that his study could be used to question whether retributive motivations should be better reflected in criminal statutes.

Benforado’s principal interest is in applying insights from the mind sciences—most notably embodied cognition, moral psychology and implicit social cognition—to law and legal theory. His recent scholarly work includes three chapters in "Ideology, Psychology, and Law," Oxford University Press (2012) and a forthcoming article in Topics in Cognitive Science.