The Dissociative Theory of Punishment

84 Pages Posted: 4 Oct 2023

Date Written: October 3, 2023


The American public has complex views on criminal punishment. They are driven primarily by retributive motivations. But they have other justice considerations, such as restoration and rehabilitation, that can be activated in different ways. Laypersons are also motivated to psychologically distance and dissociate from those they perceive to be criminal “others” and to see punishment itself as a kind of dissociation, embodied by the prison form. The psychological processes that produce these beliefs lead to an insistence on prison as a necessary criminal justice outcome, despite reservations about its effectiveness and concerns about the state of mass incarceration and punitive penal policy more generally.

This Article builds on the psychology of punishment literature to offer a deeper understanding of the dissociative theory of punishment and how it produces the belief in the necessity of prison. Drawing on original, qualitative focus group data and analysis, this Article identifies the specific psychological mechanisms that motivate dissociation, explains the role of the belief in retributive justice as part of this process, and offers nuanced insights into the contours of the dissociative theory and the way people psychologically reason about criminal punishment.

Keywords: punishment, retribution, social psychology, prison, restorative justice

Suggested Citation

Bakhshay, Shirin, The Dissociative Theory of Punishment (October 3, 2023). Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 111, No. 6, 2023, UCLA School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 23-24, Available at SSRN:

Shirin Bakhshay (Contact Author)

UCLA School of Law ( email )

Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics