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Retribution as Revenge and Retribution as Just Deserts


Public attitudes towards law-breakers shape the tone and tenor of crime-control policy, and the desire for retribution seems to be the main motivation underpinning punitive attitudes towards sentencing. Yet, there is some confusion in the research literature over what retribution really means. In this paper we distinguish between retribution as revenge (as the desire to punish criminal offenders to retaliate a past wrong by making the offender suffer) and retribution as just deserts (as the preference to restore justice through proportional compensation from the offender). Results from an online survey (n = 176) provide evidence of two distinct dimensions of retribution. But we also show that these two dimensions have different ideological and motivational antecedents, and have different consequences in terms of the treatment of criminal offender. We find that retribution as revenge is associated with the motivation to enforce status boundaries with criminal offenders, as well as ideological preferences for power and dominance (as expressed by social dominance orientation) and in-group conformity (as expressed by right-wing authoritarianism). Endorsement of retribution as revenge also predicts the support of harsh punishment and the willingness to deny fair procedures. By contrast, retribution as just deserts is mainly predicted by a value restoration motive and by right-wing authoritarianism. After controlling for revenge, retribution as just deserts predicts support for procedural justice in the criminal courts. We conclude with the idea that beliefs about proportionality and compensation work as a buffer against the negative effects of revenge.

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  1. 1.

    There are parallels here to Durkheim’s (1964, 1973) argument that punishment should be considered a moral phenomenon: while crime violates the moral order in society, punishment serves an expressive role of reaffirming social bonds and defining the boundaries of social groups.

  2. 2.

    Finckenauer (1988) proposed scales to measure both concepts and some of his items are used for the current research.

  3. 3.

    To avoid combining the goals of punishment with the process by which punishment is assigned, we do not consider measures on the role of emotions in the decision process or the strength of the response as part of the measurement of retributive punishment. Rather, we consider separate measures on the fairness of procedures by which criminal offenders are punished (in terms of neutrality and whether emotions should play a role, as well as respecting the offender during the sentencing process) and the harshness of punishment.

  4. 4.

    Note, however, that we have left out from this definition the restoration of moral balance in society. While communicative theories of punishment are often classified as part of retribution (e.g. De Keijser et al., 2002), we consider the restoration of moral balance as not being part of the core concept of just deserts, but rather a symbolic motive of punishment that could be relevant to both types of retribution.

  5. 5.

    While it is also possible to evaluate the separate role of the sub-dimensions of RWA (conventionalism and submission to authorities), preliminary analyses of our data suggest that they relate in similar ways to punitive attitudes and we thus consider them together.

  6. 6.

    Nonetheless, two studies that controlled for RWA found no relationship between SDO and punitive attitudes (Colémont et al., 2011; McKee & Feather, 2008). These inconsistent findings might be due to the confounding of different punishment goals, the fact that they controlled for RWA and authoritarian aggression (which usually includes items on the harsh punishment of criminal offenders) and the fact that they have considered SDO as a whole, while only GBD has been found to predict punitive attitudes.

  7. 7.

    Given its focus on proportionality, the extent to which a just deserts perspective relates to preferences for harsh punishment should depend on the severity of the crime. Since we are measuring punishment goals in general, we do not specify a hypothesis about the relationship between just deserts and harsh punishment.

  8. 8.

    Studies on the use of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to collect data have concluded that not only is the data as reliable as data collected through other means, but participants are also more diverse in terms of socio-demographic variables (e.g. Buhrmester, Kwang, & Gosling, 2011).

  9. 9.

    To simplify, in the remaining of this paper we refer to right-wing authoritarianism even though it only considers measures on authoritarian submission and conventionalism.

  10. 10.

    Note that while a two factor model fits the data better, retribution as revenge and just deserts are still highly correlated (r = .61, p < .01) and special caution was placed in the remaining analyses to rule out multicollinearity issues. For the following analyses, variance inflation factors (VIF) were all below 3.1, which suggests that despite the high correlation, multicollinearity problems were only moderate. Also note that we do not use likelihood-ratio test to assess relative model fit because a likelihood-ratio test is not appropriate in the context. The null hypothesis in this case (that the correlation between the two factors is 1) implies a parameter that is on the boundary of the parameter space, so the asymptotic Chi square distribution (that is normally used for likelihood-ratio tests) is not appropriate.

  11. 11.

    Parcels—i.e. indicators that aggregate two or more items by using a sum or average- are often used in structural equation modelling (Little, Cunningham, Shahar, & Widaman, 2002). When using parcels random and systematic error of single items are not incorporated into the model, and model fit and stability are thus improved. While some argue that a model should represent the sources of variance of all items, parceling is recommended for studies—such as this—where the aim is to explore relationships between latent variables and not factor structures.

  12. 12.

    We should note, however, that we do not wish to imply a causal path from ideological dispositions to symbolic motives of punishment, retributive justice and the treatment of criminal offenders. Our use of structural equation model seeks to organise and disentangle variables and their relationships more than proposing that some variables are temporarily prior to others. While it may be possible to argue that RWA and SDO are prior to attitudes towards punishment and criminal offenders, respondents are likely to think of symbolic motives, retribution and the treatment of criminal offenders as dimensions of the same attitude.


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Correspondence to Monica M. Gerber.



Harsh Punishment

  • People who break the law should be given harsher sentences.

  • The use of harsh punishment should be avoided whenever possible.

  • We should make sentences more severe for all crimes.

  • If prison has to be used, it should be used sparingly and only as a last option.

Procedural Justice: Respect

  • After committing an offence, criminal offenders lose the right to be treated with respect.

  • Despite what has happened, criminal offenders are entitled to treatment with respect and politeness.

  • Criminal offenders deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

Procedural Justice: Neutral Sentencing.

  • When deciding on the appropriate punishment, criminal offenders do not deserve to be treated according to fair rules and procedures.

  • It is essential to ensure fairness and consistency when deciding on the appropriate punishment of criminal offenders.

  • In deciding a criminal case, it is important to be objective when considering the evidence.

  • In deciding a criminal case, it is okay to allow emotions to influence judgements.

  • In deciding a criminal case, it is alright to allow anger towards the defendant to play a part in the decision.

  • In deciding a criminal case, the decision should be based in part, on subjective, personal feelings.

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Gerber, M.M., Jackson, J. Retribution as Revenge and Retribution as Just Deserts. Soc Just Res 26, 61–80 (2013).

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  • Retribution
  • Revenge
  • Just deserts
  • Right-wing authoritarianism
  • Social dominance orientation