Theory Behind the Death Penalty Study

Opinions Can Be 'Mushy'

Single, isolated opinions about the death penalty are 'mushy'. That is, opinions about capital punishment are heavily influenced by the wording of the question. As part of this study, an experiment was conducted (see above). The experiment showed that "majority opinion" on capital punishment changed from favorable to unfavorable, depending on the wording of the question. This difference between these two measures of opinion is even larger in recent public opinion polls conducted by the Gallup organization.


Rather than study isolated 'mushy' opinions about capital punishment as an abstract idea, this study examined people's intended actions regarding executions. As the domino model showed, making people take action about executions puts them closer to what they really believe and what they are likely to do.


Although the thinking in this study is specific to the death penalty, it draws on prior thinking about opinions and actions. The 'death penalty' or 'capital punishment' are issues that do not directly affect the lives of the vast majority of Americans. Thus, for most people, death penalty opinions and arguments are processed through the 'peripheral route'. People are persuaded by surface-level characteristics of messages about the death penalty, rather than careful ('central route') processing of messages. Most of what we know about the death penalty is based on fictional depictions of murder, murderers, and the death penalty on TV and in films.