5 Emotion, Rationality, and Deterrence


Chapter 1 – Introduction (concluded)


Do criminals change their behaviors in response to increased “costs” of doing what they intended to do? What impact comes from disincentives to crime, such as quicker sanctions, longer prison terms, and a large pool of citizens armed for self-defense?

There are different assumptions about human nature, about what deters criminals from acting at all, and about what might cause them to change the kinds of crimes they commit. In this section, Dr. Lott explores various approaches and ways they affect the ways people view crime deterrence – especially where violence is involved.

Emotions Can Overwhelm Reason. “Irrational” crime is recognized by the presence of insanity defenses in 47 out of 50 states as of 1992. “Criminal law recognizes that emotions can overwhelm our normal judgments in other ways.” This leads to talk of mitigating factors, and different degrees of guilt (as for first-degree murder which is premeditated and second-degree which is impulsive). (Page 17.)

Some Criminal Acts are Inherently Irrational. What if it is true, as sociology Professor Thomas Carroll assumes, “that ‘murder is an irrational act, [and] we don’t have explanations for irrational behavior.’ From this he draws the conclusion that ‘there’s really no statistical explanation’ for what causes murder rates to fluctuate.” (Page 17.)

Arguing for a Range of Rationality” in Crimes. For some researchers, certain crimes are “more rational” (e.g., robbery, burglary) and others are “less rational” (e.g., murder). Dr. Lott notes that “If such a distinction is valid, one might argue that deterrence would then at least be effective for the more ‘rational’ crimes.” (Page 17.)

Determining Factors: Random Emotions and/or Reason? “Do criminals respond to disincentives? Or are emotions and attitudes the determining factors in crime? If violent acts occur merely because of random emotions, stronger penalties would only reduce crime to the extent that the people least able to control such violent feelings can be imprisoned.” (Page 17.)

Risk, Reasoning, and Researching Deterrence. When it comes to committing potentially criminal acts, if there is any degree of risk-based reasoning involved, then it makes sense to study the forces that influence deterrence. And empirical economics studies are geared to do just that. These look at questions like: Is the “cost” of a particular action too high – too likely to bring negative results? Does the action involve too much effort or expense?

Dr. Lott mentions that there are many economics research studies on animals doing certain actions to get treats, and these “consistently show that as the ‘cost’ of obtaining the food increases, the animal obtains less food. … As for human beings, a large economics [research] literature exists that overwhelmingly demonstrates that people commit fewer crimes if criminal penalties are more severe or more certain.” (Page 19.)

Assumptions about human nature are at the critical core of research, as are our theories about social behavior. Still, theory isn’t everything. Dr. Lott notes that “Introspection can go only so far. Ultimately, the issue of whether sanctions or other costs deter criminals can be decided only empirically.” And research topics on crime deterrence begin in Chapter 2.

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