Perceptions of Crime: A Multidimensional Analysis With Implications for Law and Psychology
27 Pages Posted: 9 Nov 2006
In the last forty years, the study of social perceptions of crime in general, and the seriousness of criminal offenses in particular, has been of substantial interest to policymakers, courts, and social scientists. As a matter of criminal justice policy, consensus about how severe a crime is can serve as both a legal and societal foundation for certain criminal justice policy decisions, or about the proper punishment for that crime. From a social psychological perspective, studying individual differences in the perceptions of crime can supply valuable information both for basic knowledge about the thinking of individuals who differ on, for instance, gender, race, age, education, or political ideology, and for applied knowledge that can be used in a judicial or legislative arena. Alternatively, a hierarchy of the perceived seriousness of various criminal offenses can give insight into what is valued in a particular culture.
The difficulty of defining seriousness, however, has led to substantive and methodological critiques of this literature. The present study is the latest to investigate the dimensional nature of perceptions of crime seriousness or severity, through multidimensional scaling techniques (MDS). MDS is a procedure that helps researchers uncover hidden structures in existing data by graphically plotting respondents' perceptions of perceived similarities (or dissimilarities) among various stimuli. When these stimuli are located on a plot based on such perceptions, underlying dimensions that respondents may have used (consciously or not) can be inferred.
In two empirical studies I identify and validate three dimensions underlying perceptions of crime seriousness: amount of harm, infringement or deprivation of autonomy, and recklessness. I discuss implications for psychology, law, and policy.
Keywords: law and psychology, perceptions of crime, multidimensional scaling, experimental, criminal law
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