Psychological Aspects of Retributive Justice

ADVANCES IN EXPERIMENTAL SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, M. P. Zanna, ed., Vol. 40, pp. 193-236, San Diego, CA, Elsevier, 2008

44 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2007 Last revised: 7 Sep 2008

See all articles by Kevin M. Carlsmith

Kevin M. Carlsmith

Colgate University - Psychology Department

John M. Darley

Princeton University


Retributive justice is a system by which offenders are punished in proportion to the moral magnitude of their intentionally committed harms. This chapter lays out the emerging psychological principles that underlie citizens' intuitions regarding punishment. We rely on experimental methods and conclude that intuitions of justice are broadly consistent with the principles of retributive justice, and therefore systematically deviate from principles of deterrence and other utilitarian based systems of punishing wrongs. We examine the recent contributions of social-neuroscience to the topic and conclude that retributive punishment judgments normally stem from the more general intuitive-based judgment system. Particular circumstances can trigger the reasoning-based system, however, thus indicating that this is a dual process mechanism. Importantly, though, evidence suggests that both the intuitive and reasoning systems adhere to the principles of retribution.

The empirical results of this research have clear policy implications. Converging evidence suggests that the formal U.S. justice system is becoming increasingly utilitarian in nature, but that citizen intuitions about justice continue to track retributive principles. The resulting divide leads people to lose respect for the law, which means that they do not rely on the law's guidance in ambiguous situations where the morally correct behavior is unclear. These are the dangers to society from having justice policies based jointly on the contradictory principles of retribution and utility, and we lay out an argument for enacting public policies more exclusively based on retributive principles of justice.

Keywords: retribution, justice, psychology, law

Suggested Citation

Carlsmith, Kevin M. and Darley, John M., Psychological Aspects of Retributive Justice. ADVANCES IN EXPERIMENTAL SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, M. P. Zanna, ed., Vol. 40, pp. 193-236, San Diego, CA, Elsevier, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Kevin M. Carlsmith (Contact Author)

Colgate University - Psychology Department ( email )

13 Oak Drive
Hamilton, NY 13346
United States


John M. Darley

Princeton University ( email )

1-N-17 Green Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544
United States
609-258-3000 (Phone)

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