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Slippery scales: Cost prompts, but not benefit prompts, modulate sentencing recommendations in laypeople

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  • Eyal Aharoni
  • Heather M Kleider-Offutt
  • Sarah F Brosnan
  • Sharlene Fernandes

Abstract

Do people punish more than they would if the decision costs were more transparent? In two Internet-based vignette experiments, we tested whether juvenile sentencing recommendations among U.S. adults are responsive to variation in the salience of the taxpayer costs and public safety benefits of incarceration. Using a 2 Cost (present vs. absent) x 2 Benefit (present vs. absent) factorial design, Experiment 1 (N = 234) found that exposure to information about the direct costs of incarcerating the juvenile offender reduced sentencing recommendations by about 28%, but exposure to the public safety benefits had no effect on sentences. Experiment 2 (N = 301) manipulated cost-benefit salience by asking participants to generate their own list of costs of incarceration, benefits of incarceration, or an affectively neutral, unrelated word list. Results revealed a similar selective effect whereby sentencing recommendations were reduced in the cost condition relative to the benefits and control conditions, but sentences in the benefit condition did not differ from the control. This combined pattern suggests that laypeople selectively neglect to factor cost considerations into these judgments, thereby inflating their support for punishment, unless those costs are made salient. These findings contribute to the debate on transparency in sentencing.

Suggested Citation

  • Eyal Aharoni & Heather M Kleider-Offutt & Sarah F Brosnan & Sharlene Fernandes, 2020. "Slippery scales: Cost prompts, but not benefit prompts, modulate sentencing recommendations in laypeople," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 15(7), pages 1-17, July.
  • Handle: RePEc:plo:pone00:0236764
    DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0236764
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