Theses Doctoral

Children’s and Adults’ Reasoning About Punishment’s Messages

Dunlea, James Patrick

Punishment is a central component of humans’ psychological repertoire: the desire to punish emerges early in life and persists across cultures and development (e.g., Carlsmith et al., 2002; Hamlin et al., 2011; Henrich et al., 2010; Smith & Warneken, 2016). Although punishment is so central to the human experience, scholars across disciplines have conceptualized punishment in different ways. For instance, some scholars have conceptualized punishment as a type of behavior directed toward those who cause harm or violate social norms (e.g., Clutton-Brock & Parker, 1995; Deutchman et al., 2021) and have worked toward elucidating punishment’s instrumental value (e.g., Alschuler, 2003; Delton & Krasnow, 2017; Nagin, 1998, Zimring & Hawkins, 1995). However, other scholars have conceptualized punishment as more than just a behavior: these scholars have argued that punishment is both a behavior and a mechanism for social communication. These scholars often describe this idea as the “expressive theory of punishment” (Feinberg, 1965; Hampton, 1992; Kahan, 1996).

Though past work has argued that punishment is communicative, few programs of research have empirically tested how laypeople interpret punishment’s messages. The paucity of research examining people’s understanding of punishment’s messages is not a miniscule omission. Scholars writing on theories of punishment often postulate, at least implicitly, that laypeople will understand punishment in a way that is consistent with normative theory (e.g., Bregant et al., 2020; Darley & Pittman, 2003). If this postulation is misguided, it could undermine the extent to which people view punishment policy as legitimate (e.g., Nadler, 2004; Tyler, 2006).

My dissertation addresses this topic by investigating children’s and adults’ inferences about what punishment signals about punished individuals’ identities. When thinking about identity, people often reason about the current self in tandem with past and future selves (e.g., Peetz & Wilson, 2008). By extension, people may interpret punishment’s messages as communicating distinct information about different selves. I examine this possibility by investigating the inferences laypeople make about people's past, present, and future identities on the basis of punishment. Below, I describe the chapters in my dissertation, each of which consists of one manuscript within my larger program of research.

Chapter 1 (Dunlea & Heiphetz, 2021-a), a theory paper, provides a conceptual foundation for the empirical portions of the dissertation. Namely, this chapter introduces the idea that certain forms of legal punishment (incarceration) are especially well-suited to communicate morally relevant information, paying special attention to the idea that such punishment communicates negative moral information about punished individuals. Chapter 2 (Dunlea & Heiphetz, 2020) builds on Chapter 1 by leveraging experimental methods to understand how laypeople understand punishment’s signals. Specifically, Chapter 2 examines children’s and adults’ inferences about what punishment signals about who a punished individual was in the past. Chapter 3 (Dunlea & Heiphetz, in press) extends the results of Chapter 2 by documenting the downstream social consequences of how people understand punishment’s past-oriented messages.

Specifically, Chapter 3 examines how different messages about a punished individual’s past shape people’s attitudes toward such individuals in the present. Chapter 4 (Dunlea & Heiphetz, 2021-b) builds on Chapters 2 and 3 by investigating laypeople’s inferences about punishment’s future-oriented messages, specifically probing people’s views about what punishment might signal about who a punished individual might become. Finally, Chapter 5 (Dunlea et al., under revised review) addresses laypeople’s inferences about punishment’s future-oriented messages in a complementary way—by examining the extent to which people understand punishment as communicating messages about intergenerational immorality. That is, Chapter 5 asks whether people understand punishment as conveying morally relevant information about future generations of individuals related to punished individuals (i.e., children of incarcerated parents).

Together, these chapters shed light on the origins and development of people’s reasoning about punishment’s messages. In doing so, this dissertation integrates sub-areas of psychology (social cognition, development, moral psychology) and connects psychology with related fields (e.g., philosophy, law) to answer questions central to jurisprudential inquiry.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Heiphetz, Larisa A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 13, 2022