Professor Keelah Williams Explains Research Linking “Resource Scarcity” to Support for the Death Penalty

Keelah Williams, assistant professor of psychology at Hamilton College in New York, speaks with DPIC executive director Robert Dunham about her research on the death penalty and resource scarcity — a concept from evolutionary psychology that studies how people react to social conditions in an environment with limited resources. Williams and a team of researchers from Arizona State University, where she earned her Ph.D., examined the relationship between the actual and perceived scarcity of resources and support for capital punishment. She describes the team’s findings that countries with greater resource scarcity and income inequality were more likely to have a death penalty, as were U.S. states with lower per capita income and shorter life expectancy. She also discusses two experimental studies the team conducted to assess the effects of resource scarcity on individuals’ views of capital punishment. That research found that study participants who had been shown information and images of economic hardship tended to be more supportive of the death penalty than those of the same political ideology and socioeconomic status who had been given information and images about economic prosperity. She explains the results, saying, “If your resources are limited, then you have to be more choosey in how you invest them. So, in the context of punishment decisions, we think this means you become less willing to risk repeated offending, and more favorable towards punishments that eliminate the threat.”