CONCLUSIONS: The Death Penalty Study

  • Asking people about what methods of execution they approve is a superior was to identify death penalty Abolitionists. Any number of social and personal influences might lead people to state the opinion that they favor "capital punishment" or the "death penalty." However, when you ask those same people what methods they would okay for actually executing (killing) people, you get a more valid indicator of the person's values by virtue of the actions they will not endorse (any method of killing).

  • People who are pro-death penalty are more validly identified by their intended actions. By getting a person to commit to at least one method of execution, you obtain a more valid indicator of their pro-death penalty beliefs.

  • By putting people who favor the death penalty on a mock death penalty jury, researchers developed a powerful method for converting "opinion-holders" about the abstraction of the death penalty into "actors" regarding the execution of a serial killer. If one serves on a death penalty jury, are you willing to vote for death? If the judge and appeals court agreed with your death sentence, would you attend the execution of the person you convicted (if invited)? If you are willing to attend the execution, are you willing to actually kill ("push the button") the person that you helped condemn to death? In this way, people participating in the study became actors in the process of executing another human being. At each step, the actor can decline to take the next step. By classifying people in the Death Penalty Study by their intended actions, new insights were discovered in the belief systems of various actors.

  • Abolitionists are people who oppose the death penalty for murder (or any other crime). In the Death Penalty Study, researchers did not consider a stated opinion about the death penalty a valid measure of opposition to the death penalty. Rather, researchers asked which methods of execution each person supported. If a person rejected all methods of execution (11 were listed), then they were abolitionists by virtue of actions they were unwilling to support. Abolitionists in large numbers saw the death penalty as unfair and immoral. Abolitionists in large numbers reported disdain for public executions. Regarding executions, Abolitionists reported low levels of vicarious sadism and actual sadism.

  • Soft Abstract Supporters of the death penalty are paradoxical in their beliefs and behaviors. On the one hand, they hold nearly identical pro-death penalty beliefs with Hard Abstract Supporters who also favor the death penalty. On the death penalty jury, Soft Abstract Supporters voted overwhelming for the death penalty over life in prison. However, Soft Abstract Supporters declined an invitation to attend the execution of the person they helped sentence to death. This apparent revulsion regarding the actual concrete act of execution is reflected in their nearly unanimous disdain for public executions and rejection of vicarious sadism. With regard to disdain and vicarious sadism, Soft Abstract Supporters were more adamant than even Abolitionists. More than any other group, Soft Abstract Supporters want executions out of sight and out of mind. Regarding actual sadism (making the executed suffer while they die), Soft Abstract Supporters are more in line with other supporters of the death penalty. Regarding methods of execution that Soft Abstract Supporters approve, they tend to favor less violent and less bloody methods like lethal injections. Among death penalty supporters, they are the least likely to approve of executions using the electric chair and gas chamber, hangings, executions using firearms, beheading, and stoning.