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Essentialist Views of Criminal Behavior Predict Increased Punitiveness

Martin, Justin W.; Charles, Sophie; Heiphetz, Larisa A.

Like spilled ink, one bad act can permanently stain perceptions of someone’s character. Being labeled a criminal potentially has such an enduring stigma because of people’s willingness to believe that people have an internal, unchanging essence leading them to transgress. In Study 1, we developed a novel scale to assess individual differences in essentialist beliefs about criminality and found that these beliefs predicted punitiveness. Study 2 replicated these findings and also revealed that participants’ attitudes toward people who had committed crimes mediated this link. Study 3 found that participants who held essential beliefs about criminality were more likely to choose retributive punishments over those that prevented future harm. These results illustrate the importance of essentialist beliefs in the context of the legal system.

Keywords: criminal justice, essentialism, law, legal system, moral cognition, moral psychology, morality, psychology and law, punishment


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The Cognitive Science of Belief: A Multidisciplinary Approach
Cambridge University Press

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December 7, 2022