Hardening of the Attitudes: Americans' Views on the Death Penalty

Authors

  • Phoebe C. Ellsworth,

    Corresponding author
    1. University of Michigan
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      PHOEBE C. ELLSWORTH is a professor of psychology and a professor of law at the University of Michigan. She received her Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University in 1970, taught at Yale from 1971 to 1981, at Stanford from 1981 to 1987, and has been at Michigan ever since. Her areas of specialty are law and psychology, and basic research on emotions. Before this article she has always kept the two quite separate.

  • Samuel R. Gross

    Corresponding author
    1. University of Michigan
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      SAMUEL R. GROSS is a professor of law at the University of Michigan. He received his J.D. from the University of California at Berkeley in 1973. He practiced law from 1974 until 1982, taught at Stanford University from 1982 to 1987, and has been at Michigan since 1987. His areas of specialty are evidence law, the determinants of trial and settlement, the use of social science in litigation, and capital punishment.


5242 Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, 48106

Law School, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109.

Abstract

American support for the death penalty has steadily increased since 1966, when opponents outnumbered supporters, and now in the mid-1990s is at a near record high. Research over the last 20 years has tended to confirm the hypothesis that most people's death penalty attitudes (pro or con) are based on emotion rather than information or rational argument. People feel strongly about the death penalty, know little about it, and feel no need to know more. Factual information (e.g., about deterrence and discrimination) is generally irrelevant to people's attitudes, and they are aware that this is so. Support for the death penalty has risen for most major felonies. Youth is seen as much less of a mitigating factor than it was 35 years ago, but most people still oppose the execution of the mentally retarded. As crime rates have risen despite repeated promises by politicians to “get tough on crime,” the death penalty has become an increasingly prominent issue in electoral politics, suggesting that public opinion should be an issue of central importance for research. We suggest that future research should focus more explicitly on racial attitudes, on comparisons of the death penalty with specific alternatives, and on the emotional aspects of attitudes toward the death penalty.

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