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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

September 13, 2010

Hedonics and Punishment

Defendants are sentenced to prison for either incapacitation purposes or for punishment. Theoretically, punishment serves the joint goals of retribution (just deserts), general deterrence of other potential offenders, and specific deterrence of the sentenced offender. Longer prison sentences are assumed to equate with increased punishment of the offender. Psychological research suggests that this assumption may not be correct.

Robinson and Darley discuss research on different aspects of the “hedonic treadmill.”[i] The hedonic treadmill theory posits that while an individual’s level of happiness is initially affected by a positive or negative change in life circumstances, with time, the individual’s level of happiness returns to its original state. A defendant sentenced to prison will initially experience his change of circumstances as a negative event. However, as time passes, he adapts to his situation, prison becomes his life, and his level of happiness returns to the level it was before he went to prison. Because of the hedonic treadmill, the prison sentence has lost its bite as punishment and, hence, as a negative reinforcement. [ii]

Furthermore, humans also have the ability to become desensitized to changes within their environment. When conditions in prison change for the better or the worse from one day to the next, prisoners adapt to these changed conditions and experience them as minor changes in their levels of contentment. The prisoners become hardened to prison life. [iii]

Recent psychological research also undermines the assumption that longer sentences imply more punishment. Robinson and Darley discuss research that shows that duration of a punishment has little effect on the amount of remembered pain. Research showed that after individuals experienced a short period of intense pain and the same short period of the same intense pain followed by a longer period of less pain, they remember the short period of the intense pain followed by a longer period of less pain as less unpleasant than just the short period of intense pain. This researcher opined that individuals remember a negative experience as an average of the most extreme pain during the experience and the pain at the end of the experience.[iv]

Robinson and Darley point out that a shorter sentence has a greater likelihood of being felt as aversive at its end as a longer sentence. They conclude as follows: “The startling realization is that this short sentence will be experienced as more aversive than a much longer sentence that is equally aversive at the beginning but less so at the end! There are two reasons for this. The first is that, under the duration neglect account, the much longer duration of the long sentence contributes little or nothing to the reconstructed negativity of the remembered sentence. The second reason is that the ‘end-point intensity’ of the short sentence comes before it has had an opportunity to decay, while the end point intensity of the longer sentence is reduced at the end. The point here is that lengthening sentences may actually reduce their recalled negative character if the end experiences are relatively less aversive!”[v]

Robinson and Darley point out that society is getting a diminished “punishment” bang for their buck with longer sentences. (Of course, incapacitation is still effective.) The cost of incarceration remains constant as the value of the incarceration in the currency of punishment declines. [vi] The marginal punishment declines with sentence length.

This body of research implies that a shorter period of incarceration may be remembered as more unpleasant than a longer sentence. If a negative reinforcement for specific deterrence purposes is what was intended by the sentence of incarceration, then a shorter sentence may be more effective. Further research is required to outline the contours of the relationship between the lengths of incarceration and the levels of punishment. The study of hedonics has alerted us to other reasons why deterrence through longer sentences has not been shown to be a very robust factor in reducing recidivism.



[i] Robinson, Paul H., and John H. Darley, 2004, “Does Criminal Law Deter? A Behavioral Science Investigation”, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 24, No 2, p.187.

[ii] Ibid. p. 188.

[iii] Ibid p. 188

[iv] Ibid p. 190; D. Redelmeier and Daniel Kahneman, 1996, “Patients Memories of Painful Medical Treatments: Real Time and Retrospective Evaluations of Two Minimally Invasive Procedures”, 116 Pain 3.

[v] Robinson and Darley, Ibid p. 190.

[vi] Ibid, p. 189

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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