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The Impact of Incentives on Human Behavior: Can We Make It Disappear? The Case of the Death Penalty

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  • Naci H. Mocan
  • R. Kaj Gittings

Abstract

Although decades of empirical research has demonstrated that criminal behavior responds to incentives, non-economists frequently express the belief that human beings are not rational enough to make calculated decisions about the costs and benefits of engaging in crime and therefore, a priori drawing the conclusion that criminal activity cannot be altered by incentives. However, scientific research should not be driven by personal beliefs. Whether or not economic conditions matter or deterrence measures such police, arrests, prison deaths, executions, and commutations provide signals to people is an empirical question, which should be guided by a solid theoretical framework. In this paper we extend the analysis of Mocan and Gittings (2003). We alter the original model in a number of directions to make the relationship between homicide rates and death penalty related outcomes (executions, commutations and removals) disappear. We deliberately deviate from the theoretically consistent measurement of the risk variables originally employed by Mocan and Gittings (2003) in a variety of ways. We also investigate the sensitivity of the results to changes in the estimation sample (removing high executing states for example) and weighting. The basic results are insensitive to these and a variety of other specification tests performed in the paper. The results are often strong enough to even hold up under theoretically meaningless measurements of the risk variables. In summary, the original findings of Mocan and Gittings (2003) are robust, providing evidence that people indeed react to incentives induced by capital punishment. Research findings about the deterrent effect of the death penalty evoke strong feelings, which could be due to political, ideological, religious, or other personal beliefs. Yet, such findings do not mean that capital punishment is good or bad, nor does it provide any judgment about whether capital punishment should be implemented or abolished. It is simply a scientific finding which demonstrates that people react to incentives. Therefore, there is no need to be afraid of this result.

Suggested Citation

  • Naci H. Mocan & R. Kaj Gittings, 2006. "The Impact of Incentives on Human Behavior: Can We Make It Disappear? The Case of the Death Penalty," NBER Working Papers 12631, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:12631
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    Cited by:

    1. Brett Parker, 2021. "Death Penalty Statutes and Murder Rates: Evidence From Synthetic Controls," Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, John Wiley & Sons, vol. 18(3), pages 488-533, September.
    2. Naci Mocan & Kaj Gittings, 2010. "The Impact of Incentives on Human Behavior: Can We Make it Disappear? The Case of the Death Penalty," NBER Chapters, in: The Economics of Crime: Lessons for and from Latin America, pages 379-418, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    3. Gerritzen, Berit & Kirchgässner, Gebhard, 2013. "Facts or Ideology: What Determines the Results of Econometric Estimates of the Deterrence Effect of Death Penalty? A Meta-Analysis," Economics Working Paper Series 1303, University of St. Gallen, School of Economics and Political Science.
    4. Berit C. Gerritzen & Gebhard Kirchgässner, 2013. "Facts or Ideology: What Determines the Results of Econometric Estimates of the Deterrence Effect of Death Penalty?," CREMA Working Paper Series 2013-04, Center for Research in Economics, Management and the Arts (CREMA).
    5. William Harbaugh & Naci Mocan & Michael Visser, 2013. "Theft and Deterrence," Journal of Labor Research, Springer, vol. 34(4), pages 389-407, December.
    6. Gebhard Kirchgässner, 2011. "Econometric Estimates of Deterrence of the Death Penalty: Facts or Ideology?," Kyklos, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 64(3), pages 448-478, August.
    7. Voth, Hans-Joachim & Xu, Guo, 2020. "Encouraging Others: Punishment and Performance in the Royal Navy," CEPR Discussion Papers 14476, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    8. Choe, Jongmook, 2009. "Another Look at the Deterrent Effect of Death Penalty," MPRA Paper 14071, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    9. Angela K. Dills & Jeffrey A. Miron & Garrett Summers, 2010. "What Do Economists Know about Crime?," NBER Chapters, in: The Economics of Crime: Lessons for and from Latin America, pages 269-302, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    10. Hashem Dezhbakhsh & Paul Rubin, 2011. "From the 'econometrics of capital punishment' to the 'capital punishment' of econometrics: on the use and abuse of sensitivity analysis," Applied Economics, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 43(25), pages 3655-3670.
    11. Patrick T Brandt & Tomislav V Kovandzic, 2015. "Messing Up Texas?: A Re-Analysis of the Effects of Executions on Homicides," PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, vol. 10(9), pages 1-19, September.
    12. Paul R. Zimmerman, 2010. "The Economics of Capital Punishment and Deterrence," Chapters, in: Bruce L. Benson & Paul R. Zimmerman (ed.), Handbook on the Economics of Crime, chapter 16, Edward Elgar Publishing.
    13. Durlauf, Steven N. & Navarro, Salvador & Rivers, David A., 2010. "Understanding aggregate crime regressions," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 158(2), pages 306-317, October.

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    • K0 - Law and Economics - - General
    • K14 - Law and Economics - - Basic Areas of Law - - - Criminal Law
    • K4 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior
    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law

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