CORDIS - EU research results

Punishment as Communication: Transgressors’ Interpretation and Understanding of Punishment

Project description

Testing the communicative theory of punishment

A central purpose of punishment is to communicate to offenders the condemnation of their actions. Parents discipline their children when they misbehave and courts sentence convicted criminals to prison. Punishment will fail if the transgressors disregard or fail to understand the intended message. The EU-funded PUNISH project will investigate the types of messages transgressors receive through punishment (why they think they are being punished) and how they respond to it. For instance, do they feel remorse or ill-treated. The project will build a theoretical framework (legal philosophy, social psychology and behavioural economics) and test hypotheses in controlled experimental lab studies and in a court setting.


Punishment is ubiquitous. We discipline children when they misbehave, and we demand even harsher sanctions for criminal offences. Punishment is thought to serve a communicative purpose: Through punishment, victims and third parties seek to send various “messages” to transgressors (e.g. condemning the wrongness of the act and imploring them to reform). But are these messages effectively delivered and understood by transgressors? And does the interpretation of a punitive message have the desired effects on the transgressor?

To answer these questions, this research examines (a) the types of messages transgressors receive through punishment (why they think they are being punished), and (b) transgressors’ reactions to them (e.g. perceived fairness, experienced remorse). Further, it explores (c) the features of a punitive message that influences how the message is interpreted by transgressors. The research will be built on a theoretical framework that integrates knowledge from three distinct fields: legal philosophy, social psychology, and behavioural economics. The specific hypotheses deducted from this framework will be tested in controlled experimental lab studies as well as in a court setting.

The insights from this research will be informative to all disciplines interested in criminal justice and punishment. First, this research will develop our theoretical understanding of punitive procedures and their effects. Second, it has important implications for how we should deliver punishment to enhance justice outcomes, whether in the context of formal legal proceedings or informal sanctions.

The quality of the research will be strengthened by access to exceptional research facilities and expertise at the host university, and interdisciplinary collaboration with scholars both within the university and beyond. Further, the expertise and methodological training acquired through the fellowship will significantly develop the researcher’s capacities and profile.


Net EU contribution
€ 87 403,20
80539 Muenchen

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Bayern Oberbayern München, Kreisfreie Stadt
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 87 403,20