Vengeance Is Whose?

Here’s a fascinating abstract, no comment necessary other than a little bolding for emphasis, from a new working paper called “Vengeance” by the economist Naci Mocan of Louisiana State University. He has done a lot of work on crime. He argues, for instance (contra Freakonomics) that the death penalty has a strong deterrent effect on crime. He also co-authored a paper called “Ugly Criminals” which says that physical unattractiveness makes you more prone to a life of crime.

This paper investigates the extent of vengeful feelings and their determinants using data on more than 89,000 individuals from 53 countries. Country characteristics (such as per-capita income, average education of the country, presence of an armed conflict, the extent of the rule-of-law, uninterrupted democracy, individualism) as well as personal attributes of the individuals influence vengeful feelings. The magnitude of vengeful feelings is greater for people in low-income countries, in countries with low levels of education, low levels of the rule-of-law, in collectivist countries, and in countries that experienced an armed conflict in recent history.

Females, older people, working people, people who live in high-crime areas of their country, and people who are at the bottom 50 percent of their country’s income distribution are more vengeful. The intensity of vengeful feelings dies off gradually over time. The findings suggest that vengeful feelings of people are subdued as a country develops economically and becomes more stable politically and socially and that both country characteristics and personal attributes are important determinants of vengeance. Poor people who live in higher-income societies that are ethno-linguistically homogeneous are as vengeful as rich people who live in low-income societies that are ethno-linguistically fragmented. These results reinforce the idea that some puzzles about individual choice can best be explained by considering the interplay of personal and cultural factors.

In case you are in a prescriptive mood, consider the trenchant comment left behind by a reader at the Marginal Revolution blog, which posted recently on this subject:

“The bottom 50 percent — how do you get rid of that?”

Sidney Gendin

What is fascinating is that you describe Naci Mocan's paper as fascinating. The good professor has made a career out of using elaborate mathematics to prove the obvious. He justifies his work by writing his results are "consistent with theoretical expectations." Translation: You knew all this without studying over 8000 persons. Why don't you torture yourself by wading through the 51 pages of gobbledygook and, if you haven't yet decided to kill yourself, take a look at his many other "studies" using language that has made him a beloved member of academia?

Thomas Brownback

The authors of this work might be interested in the Enemyship work of Social Psychologists like Glen Adams.


It's pretty simple really; the dealth penalty is barbaric.

It punishes no-one, except the family of the executed person (they're dead after all - what do they care?) and it can't be undone if you kill an innocent person.

The dealth penalty has nothing to do with justice, it's all about satisfying a need for revenge.

Mr Clovis

@ John Althouse Cohen

I don't see that the given examples demonstrate a contradiction, because they are not comparable.

Many fear terrorism because they feel that it is out of their control, but like the example of the patients you gave in your blog, their irrational ways are of little direct consequence. If you go to the doctor because of an exagerated fear of cancer, you will either catch the disease at an early stage, or learn that your fears are ungrounded; both are gains.

A murderer on the other hand, may forfeit his life

if he loses the bet.

The death penalty is but one of many considerations. What about the violence, the effect on the victim's family? How could I face my mother? I would say that the risk of the death penalty is considered only by the most ruthless or pathological members of our society, a very select group, and not comparable to the unfounded fears of the general population



Are white-collar-criminals uglier than other rich managers?

Patricia Pitsel

For a consequence to be effective there must be two conditions: One, the consequence must be highly adversive (as I presume the death penalty would be for the large majority of people), and second, it must be as close to certain as possible that the consequence will occur as a result of the behaviour.

It is in this latter domaine that the death penalty as a deterrent fails. Many habitual criminals are high risk takers, so they calculate in one form or another, the odds that first, they will be caught, second they will be tried and convicted, and third, they will receive the death penalty.

This reasoning also explains why nearly 25% of the population continues to smoke. I doubt if anyone is unaware that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer (plus a host of other ailments), but not everyone who smokes develops lung cancer; they might die of something else before cancer develops, or they might develop lung cancer but receive a cure or surgery will save them.

If the non-homicidal portion of our population cannot manage to stop smoking, even though the consequences are frequently very severe (death) then why should we expect the rapists and murderers in our society to stop their anti-social activities when the probability of their actually suffering the consequences are so low?



@andy #4: your reasoning is flawed. when it says "murder rates in the United States and Canada have moved in close parallel since then", the claim is not that the murder rates are identical but that they are both decreasing (at the same rate?)

i confess that i have not bothered to look at the data to confirm that this is the case

John Althouse Cohen

"He argues, for instance (contra Freakonomics) that the death penalty has a strong deterrent effect on crime."

Well, the Levitt half of the Freakonomics duo has been blatantly self-contradictory on some key points relevant to the death penalty's deterrent effect. I've explained this here:

Read the whole post, but just to highlight the key passage: "Levitt ... is usually willing to explore the possibility that people's minds systematically work in irrational or unrealistic ways. I already pointed out that he's willing to say that people overestimate small probabilities like terrorist attacks -- but he assumes this does not happen with people contemplating the probability that they'd receive a death sentence for killing someone. Levitt was also perfectly happy to describe deeply irrational behavior in his book Freakonomics.... Yet when it comes to the death penalty, Levitt assumes that people can't be motivated by the fear of death (of all things to dismiss the potential disincentive value of!), as long as a careful reading of the statistics shows that death sentences are rare among all murder cases."

Ann Althouse (who, full disclosure, is my mom) has called this "a real contradiction":

Seems to me that Levitt has some explaining to do.



Since when is DNA evidence irrefutable anyway? In most (non-rape) cases it does little more than prove that the suspect was there (or, perhaps, had contact with someone who was there). And, perhaps more importantly, the DNA evidence is often effectively the oral evidence of a forensic scientist saying what their results were. The tests, quite sensibly, aren't done in court. So DNA evidence is still often just the evidence of one witness to say that the suspect was present at the scene of the crime. Definitely useful, but not a 100% reliable piece of evidence with which to justify killing someone.

Confessions, similarly, are generally the evidence of police officers saying they confessed. I'm from the UK, so have quite a lot of skepticism about confession evidence, after the notable miscarriages of justice with suspected IRA terrorists.


It is in human nature to seek contact with better-looking individuals. Our whole reproductive process is based on this: we look for an attractive mate to start a family with. Of course attractiveness is not all we are looking for but it is a major part of it. So I wouldn't call favoring attractive individuals "superficial" - it is just the way it is, whether we like it or not.

Malcolm Gladwell (in his book Blink!) argues that if you are tall and/or attractive you have better chances to become a leader or earn more money. So if you are not that attractive, you have a higher chance to be in the lower 50% of the income scale, where of course you are more prone to engage in criminal activity.

I really like the final comment: "The bottom 50 percent — how do you get rid of that?" They tried to solve this problem in USSR and the rest of the communist countries but picked the wrong method and failed. On the other hand it is beyond any doubt that greater social inequality leads to more crime, civil unrest and a host of problems like reduced access to education and health care.

I think the most advanced societies these days are the Nordic counties like Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. There was a blog post about Iceland and its success recently posing a similar question. I believe the success of this countries is due to the unique combination between capitalism and socialism that they built. Correct me if I am wrong but all these countries (in one form or another) have removed most impediments to free business (even encouraging it with government subsidies) while making sure that the Regular Joe will always have access to health care and education so that he won't have to beg on the streets or become a criminal to survive.

In most part all these countries feature socialized education and health care systems which is financed from the taxes. They have realized that if you don't want to pay taxes and leave everyone to take care of themselves, there will be crime, spread of diseases and vice and you will end up paying even more to fight those.



We have too many people at the lower socioeconomic end of the spectrum that have little or no access to brith control, nor incentives to use it when available. These people have little parental guidance and tend to be the ones eventually inhabiting our prisons and jails.

For some of them prison is a right of passage and a badge of honor; plus it is a warm berth, food and protection from the rain in a facility better than their own homes.

My centrist rant: the liberals want to throw money at the issue and not discuss it in a completely frank sense, and the conservatives try to prevent brigh control (just say no to sex) and also abortion. A centrist just can't win.

Assuming that the individual executed is absolutely guilty it will deter that individual from committing any future crimes. I'm uncertain whether or not capital punishment will deter others from committing the crime in the first place because criminals (IMHO) don't think like the rest of us, and usually assume they will get away with it, or don't care in the first place.

Psychological-sociological studies in the past have shown that preference is always given to someone who is attractive vs. ugly. I'm not surprised at the least about the "Ugly Criminal" hypothesis. I suggest we offer free plastic surgery in addition to free abortion to help prevent crime. (J/K about the plastic surgery.) Actually, if we could move away from being a superficial society and stop hiring good-looking models and good-looking actors perhaps we could train ourselves to look beneath the cover, at the personality.



The reason the death penalty has lost it's punch is because it is completely unconnected, after, say, 13 years on death row, from the horrific crime the brought it about.

First, there's the two years to trial factor (or so it seems).

Then there's the endless appeals.

Then there's the last minute reprieve, as the lawyers have just found someone who will testify that the criminal was with them on the night he allegedly killed his neighbor.

On and on....

Finally, by the time the person is executed, few even remember what it was all about.

Let's do it my way for a while:

If you are clearly guilty of a heinous crime (e.g., confession, DNA, video, overwhelming eyewitness evidence), you have 30 days. Any appeals must be based ONLY ON INNOCENCE, and will be fast tracked to the Supreme Court.

If there is not absolute clarity as to your guilt, then you go through the regular routine.

JUST EXECUTE the ones who are absolutely guilty...and you'll get the results you want. Thugs are gonna be afraid to pull that gun out when they know that by doing so, they will likely be executed in short order.

Further, it ELIMINATES from the gene pool and the streets criminals that, if freed, would likely do it again.

I have wondered if the Supreme Court justices who all but raped the molested children of this land by saying that child rape was not punishable by death, shouldn't be the first ones brought to trial.

Then you're executed.



The death penalty article says this about Professors Donohue and Wolfers: "The two professors offered one particularly compelling comparison. Canada has executed no one since 1962. Yet the murder rates in the United States and Canada have moved in close parallel since then, including before, during and after the four-year death penalty moratorium in the United States in the 1970s."

The murder rate in Canada is about one-third of that in the US. It has been declining steadily since our last execution in 1962. Lousy data leads to goofy conclusions.


Tudza #7...

What I meant was that once a person is convicted using the strongest sort of evidence (DNA, etc.), their appeal would only be acceptable if it attempted to show that the person was innocent of those crimes.

Most appeals, to my knowledge, do not try to do that, but instead try to show that some step in the process was improper, some "i" wasn't dotted, etc. In other words, it attempts to get off on a technicality, and not due to the person being innocent.

As for eyewitness evidence, you'll notice that I said "overwhelming eyewitness" evidence. That means, if 30 people in your office see you shoot the boss, that's overwhelming evidence.

And, of course, suspect DNA would not hold up to my standard. And for that matter, maybe even more than DNA would be required.

The point is that some people are just clearly guilty. In such cases, execute them speedily while there is still linkage to the crime. That will help people put two and two together.

If capital punishment is ineffective, it's because we have played games with it until it is all but lost it's pungency.

I mean, can you imagine that we are worried that some murderous child rapist might feel some discomfort due to lethal injection? What next--he feels frightened by the whole ordeal? He should have thought of that before he killed the child!




I think you miss the whole point of the "child rape" decision. You said,

"I mean, can you imagine that we are worried that some murderous child rapist might feel some discomfort due to lethal injection?"

But the point of the decision was that only murder should be punished by death. So a murderous child rapist could (and probably should) be executed. But a child-rapist who doesn't kill would have saved their own lives. Now there is a clear distinction that could save the lives of some unfortunate children. From my point of view, I'd rather have live children than dead rapists.

Of course, if the death penalty is no deterrent, and my guess is that criminals acting opportunistically aren't carefully weighing the consequences of their actions, this reasoning is moot.


"He also co-authored a paper called “Ugly Criminals” which says that physical unattractiveness makes you more prone to a life of crime."

True. In the old Soviet Union, just after the revolution, there was a lot of scientific/social experimentation (period known as NEP - New Economic Policy), and I read some time ago that a prominent psychologist was doing research that led him to the same conclusion. He even proposed giving free plastic surgery to criminals as a part of rehabilitation process.

Separately, in my native language (Serbian), we have an expression "ugly as a thief".


a concept here confuses me- the death penalty puts the full responsibility on the individual, regardless of social circumstance- yet then the vengeance of the penalty is cashed out by social circumstance?- it seems to me this data is circular- you can just as easily cash out heinous crimes by demographic (50% of people molested as children go on to commit heinous crime, etc.)- either rehabilitation must become a social concept, or we are all individually responsible for our vengeful drives


As primates, we are sensitive to hierarchy and no one wants to be on the bottom. I doubt that's going to change anytime soon so the issue becomes the perceived options for moving up in a hierarchy. Some kids who were bullied (at the bottom of the school hierarchy) use their vengeful feelings to become very successful adults! Give people "hope" that they can escape the bottom rungs and I believe you will at least mitigate the violence.


"If you are clearly guilty of a heinous crime (e.g., confession, DNA, video, overwhelming eyewitness evidence), you have 30 days. Any appeals must be based ONLY ON INNOCENCE, and will be fast tracked to the Supreme Court."

This makes no sense. If you went to trial in the first place you would usually have pleaded not guilty. Would you appeal saying you were guilty?

Aside from the internal inconsistency of this proposal, there are plenty of examples of confessions gained under duress, older cases where DNA evidence was not handled as well as it might be today, and everyone should know that eyewitness testimony is always suspect.