Research out of Duke University finds that, when presented vignettes of crimes that are more gruesome and violent, study participants were more likely to assign a higher penalty. 17 subjects read 84 vignettes while being observed under MRI scan. The stories presented to the participants were also matched up to crimes in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Two crimes that would have received the same penalty under those guidelines were painted in more and less gruesome terms. The results were consistent:
While participants accurately matched federal standards for the strong disgust vignettes, they suggested less punishment than the standards recommend for crimes considered weak in disgust.
Parts of their brain engaged in logical reasoning also reflected this bias. Logical reasoning areas responded less when faced with biological descriptions of the perpetrators’ personality and when faced with less gruesome crimes.
This is one of those “well, that was obvious” kind of studies. Everyone – especially prosecutors – understands that a gruesome crime will be treated more harshly than a relatively benign one. And everyone understands that a jury’s verdict can be influenced with a bit of shock and horror. But “obvious” is not a scientific term; what seems obvious is often not the whole truth. In this case, it raises an important question.
If federal guidelines are best followed when jurors are the most disgusted, does that suggest that perhaps federal guidelines are too harsh? Are they established based on the same cognitive bias that this new study explores? One researcher says as much:
“Similarly, many years ago our legal systems were perhaps built with violent, gruesome crimes in mind,” [professor of social psychology and cognitive neuroscience at Duke University Lasana] Harris said. “Therefore legal penalties for crimes better match people’s modern intuitions when the crimes are gruesome. Both factors — the mind of the accused and the gruesomeness of the crime — demonstrate built-in bias within the legal system.”
Adding in the phrase “many years ago,” is a nice nod to diplomacy. But the more likely answer is that the “Law and Order” politicians who tout their tough-on-crime stances for the sake of electoral success are pushing our nation towards unrealistically harsh penalties in the long term.