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Punishment as Communication: Transgressors’ Interpretation and Understanding of Punishment

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PUNISH (Punishment as Communication: Transgressors’ Interpretation and Understanding of Punishment)

Reporting period: 2019-07-01 to 2020-06-30

Punishment can be seen as a moral exchange through which the messages that are (explicitly or implicitly) communicated via punishment are critical in facilitating offenders’ acceptance of their punishment, legitimacy of authority and social norms, and ultimately, behavioural reform and deterrence of future crime. 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. In particular, the project examines whether the “quality” of the interaction between decision-makers (i.e. punishers) and transgressors—as experienced through social dynamics of the court process, such as expressing empathy and respect to transgressors, and giving them voice—influences the way transgressors approach and make sense of their punishment. The insights from this research has important implications for how we should deliver punishment to enhance justice outcomes, whether in the context of formal legal proceedings or informal sanctions.
All planned milestones and deliverables expected to date were achieved. An extensive literature review was conducted to explore transgressors’ interpretation and understanding of punishment. A theoretical model bridging psychological, legal, and criminological research was developed and studies were conducted to test hypotheses deducted from this framework. Data for both work packages have now been collected and are in the process of being analysed and prepared for dissemination. Planned research outputs for this project include: dissemination of findings at the 19th General Meeting of the European Association of Social Psychology (Krakow, 30 June 4 July 2020) and the International Society for Justice Research Conference (Lisbon, 7-10 July 2020); an empirical paper targeted at an international, peer-reviewed, high-impact scientific journal; and a refereed book chapter in an edited collection published by an international top-quality book publisher.
A theoretical model was built which integrates theories about communication (e.g. procedural justice) with transgressor interpretations of punishment. Specific hypotheses were developed that predict how particular parameters regarding the communication of punishment can influence the ways transgressors construe and interpret the motives underlying punishment, and how these interpretations map onto transgressors’ reactions (i.e. feelings, attitudes, and behaviour). These hypotheses were tested an innovative behavioural economics paradigm in the laboratory, as well as an online study. Results are being prepared for dissemination (e.g. preparing manuscripts for publication and conference presentations). The findings are expected to have significant implications for achieving justice, and feeds into bigger issues of social wellbeing and security—an important societal challenge for Europe and beyond.