A new study by an interdisciplinary team of Arizona State University psychology researchers has found a link between the actual and perceived scarcity of resources and support for capital punishment. The study, currently in press but available online on August 10 in the science journal, Evolution and Human Behavior, discovered that countries with greater resource scarcity were more likely to have a death penalty, as were U.S. states with lower per capita income.

Building on theories of human evolution and evidence of how humans evolved to deal effectively with different environments, the ASU research team of social psychologists, evolutionary psychologists, and legal scholars theorized that psychological factors related to the abundance or scarcity of resources could influence individual and social views of punishment. Keelah Williams, the lead author of the study who is now an assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College in New York, said “[t]o understand why people feel the way they do about the death penalty, we looked beyond individual differences to features of the environment that might affect people’s punishment attitudes, sometimes in ways outside of their conscious awareness.”

The researchers first looked to see whether they could find a relationship at the societal level between punishment and abundance or scarcity and, after finding that link, conducted two experiments to test that relationship at the individual level. They found that study participants who had been shown information and images of economic hardship tended to view the death penalty more favorably than those of the same political ideology and socioeconomic status who had been given information and images about economic prosperity. They next hypothesized that resource scarcity affects the death penalty by leading people to see offenders as posing greater risks to society and asked questions to see whether there was a relationship between scarcity, tolerance of recidivism, and the death penalty. They found that when they asked study participants their views on questions such as “Keeping convicted murderers alive is too great a risk for society to take” or “The death penalty is the only way to ensure a convicted murderer will not murder again” before asking them about the death penalty itself, respondents expressed greater support for capital punishment.

Law professor Michael Saks, the senior author of the study, said the findings suggest that perceptions about economic security influence the way a group deals with individuals who threaten the safety of others in the group. Arizona State University’s Psychology Department Chair Steven Neuberg said the study findings “help support the view that aspects of contemporary psychology rest on a deep, evolved rationality. They also have more immediate, practical implications: The ability of scientific psychology to better understand the peripheral factors that shape beliefs about the death penalty may be, for some, the difference between life and death.”


Vige Barrie, Williams Publishes on Death Penalty Attitudes, Hamilton College, August 23, 2018; Kimberlee D’Ardenne, Resource scarci­ty increas­es sup­port fordeathpenal­ty, Arizona State University, August 242018.