Law and Human Behavior

, Volume 31, Issue 4, pp 319–335 | Cite as

Transgression Wrongfulness Outweighs its Harmfulness as a Determinant of Sentence Severity

  • Adam L. Alter
  • Julia Kernochan
  • John M. Darley
Original Article


When students suggest sentences for criminal offenders, do they rely more heavily on the harmfulness or on the wrongfulness of the offender's conduct? In Study 1, 116 Princeton University undergraduates rated the harmfulness and wrongfulness of, and suggested appropriate sentences for, a series of crimes. As expected, participants emphasized wrongfulness when choosing an appropriate criminal punishment. In Study 2, 33 Princeton undergraduates made similar ratings for violations of the University Honor Code, and rated their contempt for fabricated amendments to the Code that required sentencers to focus either only on harmfulness or only on wrongfulness. Again, sentences more closely reflected wrongfulness ratings, and participants were more contemptuous of the harmfulness-based proposal. We also consider the theoretical and practical implications of these findings for sentencing laws and policy.


Psychology Sentencing Criminal law 


  1. Alldridge, P. (1990). The doctrine of innocent agency. Criminal Law Forum, 2, 45–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ames, J. B. (1908). Law and morals. Harvard Law Review, 22, 97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 319 (2002).Google Scholar
  4. Blakely v. Washington 542 U.S. 296 (2004).Google Scholar
  5. Blum-West, S. (1985). The seriousness of a crime: A study of popular morality. Deviant Behavior, 6, 83–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bowers, W. J., Steiner, B. D., & Antonio, M. E. (2003). The capital sentencing decision: Guided discretion, reasoned moral judgment, or legal fiction. In J. R. Acker, R. M. Bohm, & C. S. Lanier (Ed.), America's experiment with capital punishment: Reflections on the past, present, and future of the ultimate penal sanction, 2nd edn. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.Google Scholar
  7. Carlsmith, K. M., Darley, J. M., & Robinson, P. H. (2002). Why do we punish? Deterrence and just deserts as motives for punishment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 284–299.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Crain, W. C. (1985). Theories of development. New York: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  9. Cullen, F., Link, B., & Polanzi, C. (1982). The seriousness of crime revisited: Have attitudes toward white-collar crime changed? Criminology, 20, 83–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Erikson, M., & Gibbs, J. (1979). On the perceived severity of legal penalties. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 70, 102–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Garvey, S. F. (1998). Aggravation and mitigation in capital cases: What do jurors think? Columbia Law Review, 98, 1538–1576.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Gescheider, G., Catlin, E., & Fontana, A. (1982). Psychophysical measurement of the judged seriousness of crimes and severity of punishments. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 19, 275–278.Google Scholar
  13. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976).Google Scholar
  14. Hancock, S. F. Jr (2004). Meeting the needs: Fairness, morality, creativity and common sense. The hugh jones memorial lecture. Albany Law Review, 68, 81–96.Google Scholar
  15. Kohlberg, L., & Turiel, E. (1971). Moral development and moral education. In G. Lesser (Ed.), Psychology and educational practice (pp. 410–465). New York: Scott Foresman.Google Scholar
  16. McCleary, R., O’Neil, M., Epperlein, T., Jones, C., & Gray, R. (1981). Effects of legal education and work experience on perceptions of crime seriousness. Social Problems, 28, 276–289.Google Scholar
  17. Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246 (1952).Google Scholar
  18. Nadler, J. (2005). Flouting the law. Texas Law Journal, 83, 1399–1441.Google Scholar
  19. Packer, H. L. (1968). The limits of the criminal sanction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989).Google Scholar
  21. Rest, J. R., Narvaez, D., Thoma, S. J., & Bebeau, M. J. (2000). A neo-Kohlbergian approach to morality research. Journal of Moral Education, 29, 381–395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002).Google Scholar
  23. Robinson, P. H., & Darley, J. M. (1997). The utility of desert. Northwestern University Law Review, 91, 453–499.Google Scholar
  24. Roper v. Simmons, 125 S.Ct. 1183 (2005).Google Scholar
  25. Rosenmerkel, S. P. (2001). Wrongfulness and harmfulness as components of seriousness of white-collar offenses. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 17, 308–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Rossi, P., Waite, W., Bose, C., & Berk, R. (1974). The seriousness of crimes: Normative structure and individual differences. American Sociological Review, 39, 224–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Sellin, T., & Wolfgang, M. (1964). The measurement of delinquency. New York, NY: John Wiley.Google Scholar
  28. Sherman, R., & Dowdle, M. (1974). Perception of crime and punishment: Multidimensional scaling analysis. Social Science Research, 3, 109–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. United States v. Barker, 514 F.2d 208 (D.C. Cir. 1975).Google Scholar
  30. United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005).Google Scholar
  31. Warr, M. (1989). What is the perceived seriousness of crimes? Criminology, 27, 795–821.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Ziemer, D. (2005, April 13). 7th Circuit asks courts to impose sentences that reflect the offense. Kansas City Daily Record. News p. 1.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© American Psychology-Law Society/Division 41 of the American Psychological Association 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Adam L. Alter
    • 1
  • Julia Kernochan
    • 2
  • John M. Darley
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA
  2. 2.Yale Law SchoolCTUSA

Personalised recommendations