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Punishment as Communication: Transgressors’ Interpretation and Understanding of Punishment

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Towards a more inclusive and effective paradigm for achieving criminal justice

We all have experience with ‘punishing’ or ‘being punished’: from being scolded by our parents for bad behaviour, to handing out our own reprimands. EU-funded research explored how punishments are perceived by the wrongdoer, with important findings for criminal justice systems.

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Punishment, as a topic of academic study, spans a range of scientific fields, with much research focusing on the act of punishing itself. To date, however, not much is known about how transgressors perceive and make sense of their punishment. The PUNISH project, undertaken with support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme, approached this question by exploring the notion of punishment as a social interaction, in which a punisher ‘communicates’ a message to a transgressor.

How transgressors understand their punisher’s motives

Using an interdisciplinary theoretical framework, the project created a basic taxonomy classifying five kinds of punisher motives: relationship-oriented (aimed at restoring the relationship between transgressors and society), harm-oriented (aimed at making the transgressor suffer), self-oriented (aimed at benefiting the punisher), victim-oriented (aimed at addressing victim needs) and society-oriented (aimed at generating a society-wide benefit). The research team then conducted two experimental studies to test how transgressors attribute punisher motives – in other words, why they think they are being punished. First, the researchers ran an online study using a hypothetical vignette design, a common paradigm in social psychology. “Participants were asked to imagine themselves in a situation where they were punished by their workplace manager for stealing money, and we tested whether the way their punishment was communicated to them (respectfully vs disrespectfully) influenced motive attributions and attitudes,” says project coordinator Mario Gollwitzer. In the second study – a laboratory-based game, borrowed from behavioural economics – participants worked in small teams to maximise a shared resource. They could choose to act selfishly by keeping more game points for themselves or act cooperatively by contributing more points to the public good (a shared pool of points). Selfish players were punished by another referee player. The results of both experiments showed that punishment communicated in an interpersonally respectful manner increased the likelihood of transgressors attributing the punishment to relationship-oriented motives – i.e. a motive with a constructive impact on the transgressor. Importantly, transgressors’ motive attributions had flow-on effects: interpreting punishment as relationship-oriented increased perceived legitimacy and motivation to change. In contrast, when transgressors believed they were being punished for self- or harm-oriented reasons (e.g. self-serving or spiteful motives on behalf of the punisher), they responded defensively, expressing hostility towards their punishment and punishers and less willingness to change.

From experimental tests to real-world application

The project’s results are a significant contribution to literature on punishment, showing that a transgressor’s own interpretation of the message implied in their penalty matters more than hitherto expected. Gollwitzer explains: “Specifically, our results indicate that transgressors are sensitive to the interpersonal or relational dimensions of punishment. The motive they attribute to the punisher influences their reactions, and thereby the effectiveness of sanctions at changing attitudes and, potentially, behaviour.” Project researcher Melissa de Vel-Palumbo adds that this finding has important implications for sanctioning systems: “Authorities should convey that they are punishing transgressors, not to harm or humiliate them, but rather in an inclusive manner that communicates an opportunity to repair the relationship breached by the wrongdoing.” As a next step, therefore, the researchers aim to conduct field research to test whether the findings hold in a real-world criminal justice context and can help authorities communicate punishment in ways that better achieve justice.


PUNISH, transgressor, punishment, motives, justice, behaviour, communication

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