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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

May 15, 2011

Thoughts of Death May Increase Desire to Punish

Terror management theory (TMT) posits that fear of death can strongly influence human behavior, including behavior within the courtroom. The theory starts with the hypothesis that when humans confront their own mortality, they are comforted by a belief that they share with others a stable world-view of various values. This world-view may be a transcendent religious view, or a this-world, shared sense of community values.

Multiple studies have been completed that show that when humans are reminded of their death, they have a tendency to want to protect, defend, and enforce their world-views. This tendency holds for decisions made in a courtroom—generally resulting in more punitive decisions.

Research has shown that when judges are reminded of their mortality, they will impose higher bail than judges who have not been reminded of their own mortality. Juries will have a greater tendency to convict on lesser evidence and recommend more severe sentences after being reminded of their mortality. People also can become more physically aggressive against those who threaten their world-views when they are reminded of their own mortality.

Research has shown that TMT can lead people being more lenient rather than punitive when it is the victim of the crime that threatens one’s world-view—any experienced criminal defense attorney understands this.

Terror management theory is another mechanism that those in the criminal justice system must be aware of. While advocates may attempt to exploit this phenomenon, judges must be on guard to protect against any undue influence on their or a jury’s decision from thoughts of one’s mortality.[i]

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.

[i] Arndt, Jamie, Joel Lieverman, Alison Cook, (2005), Terror Management In the Courtroom: Exploring the Effects of Mortality Salience on Legal Decision Making, 11 Psychology, Public Policy and Law 407, pp. 407-437/

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