Robert Dunham 0:02

Hello and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. I’m Robert Dunham, Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. Today we’ll be speaking with Keelah Williams, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Hamilton College and the lead author of the article, Capital and Punishment: Resource Scarcity Increases Endorsement of the Death Penalty, which is currently in press in the journal evolution and human behavior. The article reports on the series of four studies ,done by an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Arizona State University, where Dr. Williams received her PhD and her law degree. The studies examine first, how the scarcity or abundance of resources affect whether states or countries have the death penalty, and second, the degree to which perceptions of economic scarcity or economic security affect the individual people’s views of capital punishment. Welcome, Professor Williams, and thank you for joining us.

Professor Keelah Williams 0:51

Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here.

Robert Dunham 0:53

Before we get to the study itself, I’ve got a very basic question I think will help our listeners put your research into context. The article and the studies revolve around the concept you call resource scarcity. What do you mean by that? What is resource scarcity?

Professor Keelah Williams 1:09

Great question. So scarcity here, we’re referring to the availability of resources, as well as how much competition there is, for those resources. So ancestrally-speaking, resources would have included basic necessities like food, and water. And in contemporary times, it also includes these more abstract concepts like money and jobs. And essentially, our psychology is attuned to these kinds of cues, that suggests that we might be in danger of having less than we need.

Robert Dunham 1:39

Now, you link people’s reactions to resource scarcity, to an evolutionary response to their environment. What gave your team the idea to look at the death penalty through the lens of human evolution?

Professor Keelah Williams 1:50

So using an evolutionary framework, has led researchers to generate a number of really fascinating studies on how different features of our environment ,like how dense the population, or the number of men compared to women, or the presence of infectious diseases, how all of these ecological variables can affect our behavior, in really striking ways and this often is happening at an unconscious level. But in the literature about the death penalty, the focus so far has really been on how aspects of the individuals influence punishment attitudes. So, how religious or how politically conservative or how authoritarian the person is. So we thought that there is this exciting opportunity to see, whether environmental factors might also play a role in how people think and feel about the death penalty.

Robert Dunham 2:36

Now, your research consisted of four studies. In the first two, you look at the relationship between countries, resource scarcity and the death penalty, and the relationship between US states per capita income and the death penalty. How did you go about doing that and what did you find?

Professor Keelah Williams 2:53

And our first two studies, we initially just wanted to see if there was any evidence of a relationship between resource availability and the death penalty that was happening out there in the real world. So our aim was, this initial proof of concept that these two things might be related in the way that we thought they would be. So in our first global study, we did some debating to figure out what variable to use as our measure of resource scarcity. And we ended up choosing what we felt was the most accurate representation of resources, which is the inequality adjusted Human Development Index. So this is a measure that’s compiled by the United Nations. And it provides a score for each country based on the populace’s life expectancy, income, and education, which we felt captured the harshness of those particular environments. And importantly, this, measure adjust for inequality. So it gives us a more holistic picture of what the majority of the country’s population experiences than say GDP. So we had our measure of scarcity and we look to see whether this nation’s score on the IHDI would prefer whether or not the death penalty was legal in the country and we found that countries with lower IHDI, so fewer resources, that these countries were more likely to have the death penalty. And this finding held after controlling for population size. So once we had that we then conducted a similar analysis within the United States, this time using state per capita income and life expectancy as our measures of resource availability. And similarly to what we saw with the global data, we found that states with lower life expectancy and lower per capita income, were more likely to have the death penalty. And again, this relationship wasn’t explained by other variables, like how politically conservative the states were, or state murder rate. So we had our first evidence that there was something to this relationship between resource availability and the death penalty.

Robert Dunham 4:50

So why do you think that countries and states with, with, greater scarcity or more likely to have the death penalty?

Professor Keelah Williams 4:54

Well, if your resources are limited, then you have to be more choosy in how you invest them. So in the context of punishment decisions, we think that this means you’d become less willing to risk repeated offending and more favorable towards punishments that eliminate the threat as compared to leaving open the possibility of rehabilitation. So on a macro scale, this psychology might influence support for maintaining the death penalty as a matter of law.

Robert Dunham 5:23

And one of the things that I think is interesting is some of the differences that we see in the practices on the ground versus what states authorized statewide, what legislators authorized statewide. And your study found that the states with the lowest income levels were more likely to have the death penalty, which suggested to me that statewide decision makers are influenced by some psychological phenomenon that correlates with resource scarcity when they make the decisions, whether it had the death penalty or not. And so, you know, the this sort of statewide action in either having or not having the death penalty, but when the death penalty itself is sought, it’s not sought and imposed by states, it’s saught and imposed at the county level. And the research on the county level use of the death penalty shows, I think it’s interesting relationship between the availability of resources and whether the death penalty is actually used. But what it shows is that within the states that have the death penalty, the poorest counties tend to seek it the least, and the higher income counties tend to seek it the most. So I’m interested in your thoughts on this apparent contradiction, or maybe it’s not a contradiction. And, you know, does it actually support your theory that resource resource scarcity affects criminal justice decisions?

Professor Keelah Williams 6:43

Yeah, that’s really interesting. I’m not terribly familiar with those data, so I’m not sure how similar the controls and variables from those studies were to ours, but for the purpose of answering your question, we can presume that the findings are what they are in which case my first reaction would to be clear that ,that we are not saying resource scarcity is the only thing that influences death penalty attitudes, or death penalty laws. And I think this is especially true when you go from one level analysis like feelings about the death penalty to another level of analysis, like implementation. So if all else is equal, you might expect that implementation would flow perfectly from desire. But in the real world, there are often logistical issues and other considerations that can get in the way. So I think my take on this apparent contradiction that you’ve raised, but it’s really fascinating, and there are lots of reasons why it could exist and figuring them out sounds to me like a question that’s worth exploring.

Robert Dunham 7:41

And one of the things that occurred to me is that, it might actually, it might actually support your notion, because when it comes to implementation, there are resource decisions that have to be made and the poor counties if the death penalty is more costly, which all the evidence suggested it is, that the poor counties have their own form of resource scarcity that may prevent them from pursuing the death penalty.

Professor Keelah Williams 8:06

Absolutely. I think it’s a very interesting point.

Robert Dunham 8:09

Okay, so now after after looking at the patterns of who has or who doesn’t have capital punishment, you did two experimental studies to take a look at the causal link between resource scarcity and support for the death penalty on an individual level, would you tell us about what you did what you found.

Professor Keelah Williams 8:28

So knowing that there’s a relationship between two variables in the real world, doesn’t tell us which variable is causing the other. So to be able to make those causal claims, we wanted to experimentally manipulate people’s perceptions of resources, and then see what effect that had on their endorsement for the death penalty. So in our first experimental study, we found a small effective resource availability on death penalty attitudes in that people in our scarcity condition became more favorable towards the death penalty than people in our abundance condition. And we manipulated the perception of scarcity by having them read text and see photographs that indicated either that the economy was doing well and in an upswing, or that the economy was poor, and that the threat of recession was looming. But in this first study, our sample included participants who felt really strongly opposed to the death penalty. And you can imagine that a simple laboratory manipulation, like reading about the state of the economy, isn’t going to budge people who are strongly ethically or morally opposed to the death penalty. So in our second experimental study, we wanted to replicate our effects, but then also to see what would happen with the sample who had attitudes toward the death penalty that weren’t so strong that they’d be disqualified from serving as jurors on real capital cases.

Robert Dunham 9:52

What did you find in the second study?

Professor Keelah Williams 9:54

So what we found in the second study was again, that participants who saw the resource scarcity information became more favorable towards the death penalty than those who had saw the resource abundance information. And we also saw, that the reason why this was occurring is because the information about scarcity was leading participants to become less willing to risk repeated offending. And that was what was causing them to become more favorable towards the death penalty.

Robert Dunham 10:27

How did you know that that the folks who were involved in the study were less willing to risk repeat offending, as opposed to they just were angry and wanted to impose a harsher penalty?

Professor Keelah Williams 10:43

Yeah, absolutely. So we measured their attitudes about the increased risk of offending, explicitly. So we asked questions about those attitudes, on if they felt that not sentencing individuals to death would be too great risk for society to take and that the death penalty was necessary because it would ensure that individuals who had, were convicted murderers would not be able to murder again.

Robert Dunham 11:20

You know, I think that our audience is probably familiar with a concept called push polling, and that’s where you get a survey and in order to influence the person’s answers, they’re told certain information in advance or the question is posed in a particular way to try to obtain a particular response. How did what you do, how was your question frame to avoid that kind of that that kind of effect?

Professor Keelah Williams 11:53

So if the effects that we saw were simply a result of the way that some of our questions are worded, then it wouldn’t have made a difference whether people had seen the abundance or scarcity information before answering the question. Right, because the questions that we asked them about the risk of keeping convicted murderers alive, those questions didn’t change as a function of condition, but people’s responses to them did. And also we didn’t include those questions about risk in the first experimental study. It also wasn’t a part of our first two archival studies. And we still saw these effects of resource scarcity, increasing favor ability towards the death penalty in those instances.

Robert Dunham 12:34

One of the things that I found interesting in the methodology is something that you mentioned a bit earlier, which is that the choice in the second study to kind of do death qualification; ask the questions that that could conceivably get a juror excused from a death penalty case, or might indicate the strength of their views about the death penalty. In the first study, did you ask any of those questions at all? Or did you just, you just ask everybody the same questions?

Professor Keelah Williams 13:07

We just asked everybody the same questions, and they were about general feelings towards the death penalty. And so we weren’t able to remove participants based on if they said that they would never impose the death penalty, for example, because we didn’t ask them those kinds of questions.

Robert Dunham 13:26

No, I think there’d be a really interesting study here that that wasn’t done, which would be doing the death qualification questions. And then instead of excluding the people from the study, include them and assess what the differences ,that may ,you could maybe measure the degree of evolutionary, the degree of the evolutionary pressures, the effect of of the evolutionary principles on people, whether whether there was less of an effect or maybe there might still be an effect. I’ve represented people on death row for 20 years before I became the director here at DPIC and there were numerous cases, where we had jurors who had answered the death qualification questions and said, they were, they’d be extremely reluctant to impose the death penalty, but then after being exposed to facts in the case that made them afraid of the defendant, nevertheless, went ahead and imposed the death penalty.

Professor Keelah Williams 14:32

Great question. And it also gives me an opportunity to, to make a clarification point, which is that we excluded those those participants who felt so strongly about the death penalty in our analysis, but we collected our data from the entire sample. So people who were death qualified and we’re not death qualified. And so we actually were able to do those comparisons and to look within people who were not death qualified, what affected resource scarcity have on their attitudes towards the death penalty? And look, when you combine the two samples together, what’s happening. And so when you look at them independently, you see that four people who are strongly opposed to the death penalty, so they would not be death qualified to serve on a jury, that resource scarcity wasn’t shifting their attitudes towards the death penalty, we weren’t seeing the same effects. And so this establishes an important boundary condition to our claims, right, which is that we’re saying for those people who would consider the death penalty under some circumstances, then resource scarcity can influence the calculation, calculations that they engage in, and how favorable they feel towards the death penalty. But for people who are pre committed to a position, then they are unresponsive to this scarcity information that we provided.

Robert Dunham 15:59

Okay, now, I’m not an evolutionary scientist, and I’m not a psychologist. And I’m pretty sure that most of our audience isn’t either. So hopefully, you can explain this to me and our audience. When you talk about scarcity of resources, it seems to me you’re talking about environmental circumstances that threaten the physical integrity, and maybe even the survival of the individuals in the social group, and that that threatens the integrity of the group as a whole. So when we’re talking about the reactions to resource scarcity, would we be able to substitute other kinds of threats that make people fearful or cause them to feel insecure? Or do you think there is something unique to resource scarcity itself?

Professor Keelah Williams 16:45

Well maybe you’re not evolutionary scientists, but you’re all products of evolution so, you’re halfway there. But I think it’s important to note, in response to your question, is that resource scarcity does what it does because it’s affecting the cost-benefit analysis of keeping offenders around or eliminating them. But you could generate a number of hypotheses about what else could influence that cost benefit analysis. So in other work that I’ve done, we know that it’s not just any threat, right. So if you get people worried about disease, for example, it doesn’t change how they feel about the death penalty. But there are other ecological variables that might affect that cost benefit analysis of rehabilitation versus elimination, and I would expect to see an effect on death penalty attitudes with those variables.

Robert Dunham 17:34

That kind of reminds me of some of the studies that have been done on implicit bias because my thought was that that religious bias or racial bias could stimulate the same kind of threat reaction when it comes to decisions that are being made by juries. And for example, we know of studies of implicit bias that show that when you gradually expose white respondents to a picture of a weapon, and the weapon initially, you can’t see anything. And then the pixels become closer and closer together. And, and the picture becomes clearer and clearer.

And at some point, you realize there’s a knife or there’s a gun, when you when you expose white respondents to that emerging picture, they tend to recognize the dangerous object faster if they’ve been subliminally shown a picture of a black person first, and it tends to take them longer to too recognize the dangerous object if they’ve been primed with a subliminal photo of a white person. So my, my question is, if we replicated your study, and we wanted to find out what people’s racial attitudes were, and then gave them information, that was bad information about race relations, and then gave them information about how they’re improving social, improving social circumstance with race relations, do you think we’d get the same kind of result?

Professor Keelah Williams 19:14

Well I do agree with you that race can play a role and these kinds of calculations of what are the costs and benefits of keeping the offender in the group versus removing them, but in a slightly different way. So as my collaborators and I talked about in our paper, we think that people are trying to figure out what the potential future value is of the offender, because that’s the information that helps them to evaluate the costs and benefits of getting rid of someone versus keeping them around and there could be circumstances when someone might possess a particular skill or an expertise that makes them very valuable. So for example, for speaking ancestrally, someone might be the best hunter in the group and in that case, then getting rid of that person becomes far more costly, maybe even more so more costly in times of scarcity, than in abundance. But getting back to your point about race specifically, I think that whether someone is in your in group or your out group, could influence the future value you see them as posing, in which case it would influence this calculation and resulting attitudes towards the death penalty.

Robert Dunham 20:20

And with that, under evolutionary theory, we would you would expect to see that there would be harsher punishment to somebody in the out group, but discretionary acts of leniency that favor people who are members of the in group.

Professor Keelah Williams 20:36


Robert Dunham 20:37

That’s, I think that’s fascinating too because that’s exactly what we see, when we’re looking at the race data: That there appears to be a disproportionate application of the death penalty against defendants of color and whatever the minority group that’s most discriminated against tends to be whatever the minority group that’s perceived as most threatening in a particular region of the country, but the exercises of leniency tend to be directed more towards white defendants. So as, as the number of death sentences have fallen in the United States and as the number of executions have dropped, there have been a smaller, smaller portion of white defendants are being sentenced to death and smaller portion of defendants being executed in cases involving the deaths of white victims.

Professor Keelah Williams 21:28

Oh, absolutely. And as you mentioned, I think that this can also help explain the victim effects that we see to, where if, it’s, if the victim is a member of our in group, then that might be more threatening to us. Or you might see that offender is posing more future threats to us than if the victim is a member of our out group.

Robert Dunham 21:49

This is all fascinating stuff. Is there anything else about the evolutionary theory in the death penalty that that you think are our listeners will like to hear?

Professor Keelah Williams 22:00

I would just say I two quick points. One, that I think that maybe the most interesting takeaway from our study, is that these features of our environment really can influence the way that we feel and the way that we behave, and it can do so in ways that we’re not necessarily consciously aware are happening and so I think that it’s a very fruitful area for future research. And then my second point would be, just that there’s been a lot of debate about the death penalty in terms of its arbitrariness and that has been one of the main arguments against it, that it’s arbitrarily imposed. And I think that this study raises interesting issues about if these extraneous factors, like the state of the economy, are influencing people’s attitudes towards something as important as how they feel about the death penalty and their willingness to impose death over life, then I think that that’s something that we as a society need to to consider it if we’re comfortable with

Robert Dunham 23:08

We’ve been speaking with Professor Keelah Williams. Professor, thank you for joining us for Discussions with DPIC.

Professor Keelah Williams 23:14

Thank you so much.

Robert Dunham 23:15

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