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Who is Afraid of the Stick? Experimentally Testing the Deterrent Effect of Sanction Certainty


  • Engel, Christoph
  • Nagin, Daniel


The empirical literature on deterrence tends to find stronger and more consistent evidence in support of the deterrent effect of the certainty than for the severity of punishment. Three distinct explanations have been advanced: (1) risk preferences of potential criminals, (2) the present orientation of potential criminals, and (3) stigma. We report an experiment that rules out the second and third explanations by design, and that provides a direct test of the first explanation. We find that risk averse participants are more deterred by severity, as predicted by theory. Yet risk seeking participants are not more deterred by certainty if the offense has a positive expected value, or if its expected value is zero. The theory is only supported if the sanction is so severe and frequent that committing the offense has a negative expected value.

Suggested Citation

  • Engel, Christoph & Nagin, Daniel, 2015. "Who is Afraid of the Stick? Experimentally Testing the Deterrent Effect of Sanction Certainty," Review of Behavioral Economics, now publishers, vol. 2(4), pages 405-434, December.
  • Handle: RePEc:now:jnlrbe:105.00000037

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    Cited by:

    1. Christoph Engel, 2016. "Experimental Criminal Law. A Survey of Contributions from Law, Economics and Criminology," Discussion Paper Series of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods 2016_07, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.
    2. Oren Bar-Gill & Christoph Engel, 2016. "Bargaining in the Absence of Property Rights: An Experiment," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 59(2), pages 477-495.
    3. repec:eee:ejores:v:278:y:2019:i:2:p:448-462 is not listed on IDEAS
    4. Mungan, Murat C., 2017. "The certainty versus the severity of punishment, repeat offenders, and stigmatization," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 150(C), pages 126-129.
    5. repec:eee:jeborg:v:158:y:2019:i:c:p:288-310 is not listed on IDEAS

    More about this item


    Crime; Certaintly and severity of sanction; Risk preference; Experiment;

    JEL classification:

    • C91 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Individual Behavior
    • D03 - Microeconomics - - General - - - Behavioral Microeconomics: Underlying Principles
    • D81 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Criteria for Decision-Making under Risk and Uncertainty
    • K14 - Law and Economics - - Basic Areas of Law - - - Criminal Law
    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law


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