Our Existential Death Penalty: Judges, Jurors, and Terror Management

Law & Psychology Review, Vol. 32, p. 55, 2008

53 Pages Posted: 9 Jan 2009

Date Written: January 8, 2009


Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker explored the impacts of the subconscious fear of death upon humans. In recent years, experimental psychologists have conducted studies related to Becker's theories. This "terror management theory" research has found that human beings become more punitive and hostile toward other groups when they are reminded of their own mortality. For example, in one study of municipal judges, the judges who were reminded of death set an average bond of $455 in a fictional case, while judges in the control group who were not reminded of their mortality set an average bond of $50 for the same case. This study, and others like it, provides significant lessons for the legal system, especially in cases involving death.

This Article begins with a brief introduction into the existential theories about the fear of death discussed by Ernest Becker and others, and then it provides an overview of the recent empirical terror management theory research. The following sections give a brief overview of the capital punishment system and discuss how the terror management studies explain several inherent problems with the capital punishment system. These theories and experiments provide an important understanding of the subconscious influences upon jurors and upon other participants in the legal system such as judges, attorneys, and defendants. For example, terror management theory helps explain why death-qualified jurors are more punitive. The article concludes by explaining how attorneys and judges should work to lessen the death denial influences in capital cases because these existential influences contribute to the arbitrariness of the application of the death penalty. In addition to providing advice for capital defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges, the article proposes areas of further study for experimental existential psychologists. The conclusion appeals for more education in the legal community and for further interdisciplinary study in the scientific community.

Keywords: death penalty, capital punishment, jury selection, voir dire, terror management, Ernest Becker, psychology, existential, mortality salience, death, volunteers, judges

JEL Classification: K14, K10, K40, K00

Suggested Citation

Kirchmeier, Jeffrey L., Our Existential Death Penalty: Judges, Jurors, and Terror Management (January 8, 2009). Law & Psychology Review, Vol. 32, p. 55, 2008. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1324922

Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier (Contact Author)

CUNY School of Law ( email )

2 Court Square
Long Island City, NY 11101
United States

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