Does Criminal Law Deter? A Behavioral Science Investigation

40 Pages Posted: 4 Feb 2005

See all articles by Paul H. Robinson

Paul H. Robinson

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

John M. Darley

Princeton University


Does criminal law deter? Given available behavioral science data, the short answer is: generally, no. The behavioral sciences increasingly call into question the assumption of criminal law's ex ante influence on conduct. Potential offenders commonly do not know the legal rules, either directly or indirectly, even those rules that have been explicitly formulated to produce a behavioral effect. Even if they know the rules, the cost-benefit analysis potential offenders perceive - which is the only cost-benefit analysis that matters - commonly leads to a conclusion suggesting violation rather than compliance, either because the perceived likelihood of punishment is so small, or because it is so distant as to be highly discounted, or for a variety of other or a combination of reasons. And, even if they know the legal rules and perceive a cost-benefit analysis that urges compliance, potential offenders commonly cannot or will not bring such knowledge to bear to guide their conduct in their own best interests, such failure stemming from a variety of social, situational, or chemical influences. Even if no one of these three hurdles is fatal to law's behavioral influence, their cumulative effect typically is.

Keywords: Deterrence, punishment, social science

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Robinson, Paul H. and Darley, John M., Does Criminal Law Deter? A Behavioral Science Investigation. Available at SSRN:

Paul H. Robinson (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
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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