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Do People Agree on how much Punishment fits Crimes?

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Principal Investigator(s):

Robert Kurzban
University of Pennsylvania
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Paul Robinson
University of Pennsylvania
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Sample size: 250
Field period: 08/01/2006-8/10/2006



The common wisdom among criminal law theorists and policy makers is that the notion of desert is vague and the subject to wide disagreement. Yet the empirical evidence in available studies, including new studies reported here, paints a dramatically different picture. While moral philosophers may disagree on some aspects of moral blameworthiness, people’s intuitions of justice are commonly specific, nuanced, and widely shared. Indeed, with regard to the core harms and evils to which criminal law addresses itself—physical aggression, takings without consent, and deception in transactions— people’s shared intuitions cut across demographics and cultures. The findings raise interesting questions—such as, what could explain this striking result—and hint at intriguing implications for criminal law and criminal justice policy.


Hypothesis 1: Demographic variables such as race and income will have no systematic effects on the perception of the relative severity of criminal acts.
Hypothesis 2: The degree of consensus regarding the relative seriousness of offenses in the domains of physical harm, theft, and contract violations will be no different from the degree of consensus in other areas, such as drugs and reproductive rights.

Experimental Manipulation:

People were asked to rank a group of 24 offenses (scenarios about harm and theft) and then 12 offenses in other areas (drugs, reproductive rights) and place them in order of least to most serious. So, type of offense (harm/theft vs. other) was manipulated within subject.
Demographic information was used as in a between-subject quasi-experimental design to test hypothesis 1.

Key Dependent Variables:

Degree of consensus across subjects in rank ordering offenses in terms of seriousness.

Additional Information:

Details can be found in the manuscript, which is on line at:

Summary of Findings:

As predicted, people agree to a very large extent about the seriousness of offenses relating to theft and harm. There is less consensus on issues pertaining to drugs and reproductive rights. Detailed analyses of demographic predictors of ranking of offenses is underway.


There is a great deal of consensus about the relative seriousness of certain kinds of offenses. People in this sample showed strikingly high agreement about how to order 24 offenses in terms of seriousness. There is less agreement about offenses outside these domains.


Robinson, P., & Kurzban, R. (2007) Concordance and conflict in intuitions of justice. Minnesota Law Review, 91, 1829-1907.

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