College of Science and Health Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award

Spring 6-13-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Christine Reyna, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Susan McMahon, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Leonard Jason, Ph.D.


Punishments that are issued by the criminal justice system can enhance factors related to recidivism or contribute to offender rehabilitation. Investigating the ecological element of public attitudes toward punishment can inform efforts of second-order change for reducing recidivism and improving offender and community wellbeing (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Kelly, 1966; Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974).

The form and duration of punishments can be influenced by the goals that punishments are meant to achieve. Punishment goals include retribution, incapacitation, individual deterrence, general deterrence, rehabilitation, and restorative justice. Each of the goals can lead to sanctions that impact offender behavior differently yet substantive predictors of when the different goals are pursued have yet to be discovered.

An important stakeholder in the operations of the criminal justice system is the general public, and public opinions regarding sentencing practices can impact the punishments that are issued (Roberts, Stalans, Indermaur, & Hough, 2003). This paper will whether the moral characteristics of crimes along with social functional accounts of emotion can predict public support for the goals of punishment.

Social functionalist accounts of emotion suggest that different emotions are elicited by appraisals that are made of events in the environment. Emotions then lead to different action tendencies for responding to the appraisals. The action tendencies are goal oriented and may take the form of punishment goals.

The appraisal of a crime by the public can include an assessment of its moral qualities. Moral Foundations Theory suggests there are five categories of moral concern: harm, fairness, ingroup, authority, and purity (Haidt & Graham, 2007). This paper examined whether public appraisals of the five types of moral violation predict three appraisals of the offender: whether the offender committed an immoral act, whether the offender was morally incompetent, and whether the offender possessed an immoral nature. These secondary appraisals were then used to predict five emotions that people may experience when being informed of a crime: anger, fear, contempt, sympathy, and disgust. Finally, the emotions, each with their own goal-oriented action tendency, were used to predict the goals of punishment desired by the public.

Predicted relations between the appraisals, emotions, and punishment goals were combined to form a path model. To test the model, 546 participants completed an online survey and a path analysis of the model was conducted. A majority of the predicted relations were significant; however, the model did not fit the data. Additional analyses were then performed to develop a model that did fit the data.

Violations of authority and purity moral principles indirectly predicted support for all the punishment goals. Furthermore, while the appraisal of an immoral act lead to anger and support for retribution, the appraisal of an immoral nature lead to many emotions and support for a variety of punishment goals. Finally, fear did not predict support for any punishment goal, and sympathy for the offender predicted support for rehabilitation and restorative justice.

The findings have implications for theory, interventions, and policy. The study shows that public attitudes toward criminal punishment can be predicted by moral concerns and emotions. Interventions could be developed to reduce the appraisal of an immoral nature, which was a strong predictor for the punitive punishment goals. Finally, the study presents ideas for how policies can be changed to reduce the size of the prison population.

Punishments are necessary for responding to crime, but different punishments produced by different goals can differentially impact recidivism rates. Determining how perceptions of crime can lead to public support for various punishment goals can help inform systems change efforts at improving sentencing practices.