Crime trend perceptions, negative emotions, and public punitiveness: a survey experiment of information treatment

Abstract

Objectives

Public punitiveness is closely related to the expansion of the US penal system. Prior studies have examined inaccurate crime trend perceptions and negative emotions as key predictors of punitive attitudes. However, the interconnections between crime trend perceptions, negative emotions, and punitive attitudes have not been explored. It is yet unknown if exposure to accurate crime trend information reduces negative emotions and public punitiveness.

Methods

I analyzed data from a survey-based experiment with a nationwide sample (N = 441) using conditional process analysis.

Results

Perceptions of rising crime trends were related to punitiveness both directly and indirectly through anger about crime. Exposure to accurate crime information did not alleviate anger about or fear of crime, but, surprisingly, increased support for punitive criminal justice policies.

Conclusions

The study highlights the importance of understanding the expressive and emotional elements of punishment and the possible positive effect of providing people with accurate crime information on punitiveness.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. 1.

    According to the standard definitions of American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR 2016), a survey is considered complete if the respondent answers crucial or essential questions. For this sample, a survey is considered complete if the respondent has answered questions on race and sex; otherwise, it is considered incomplete with a breakoff.

  2. 2.

    In the general population, the median age is 38 years old; 29.92% of the population hold a college or advanced degree (US Census 2017). In the analytic sample, more than half (51.25%) of the respondents were under the age of 34; more than half (54.20%) of the respondents had a college or graduate degree.

  3. 3.

    According to Pickett and Baker (2014), bidirectional questions may reduce biases associated with acquiescence responding to survey questions measuring punitiveness compared to unidirectional questions, although the alpha coefficient for the bidirectional question measure may be lower as the alpha coefficient for the unidirectional question measure is biased and inflated.

  4. 4.

    The categorical demographic variables (i.e., Female, Nonwhite, Hispanic, Income, Education, and Political Conservatism) were treated as continuous variables in the analysis. The results remained the same when the demographic variables were treated as categorical variables in the models.

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Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Dr. Justin Pickett for his generous help with data collection and manuscript review.

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Shi, L. Crime trend perceptions, negative emotions, and public punitiveness: a survey experiment of information treatment. J Exp Criminol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-020-09454-7

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Keywords

  • Crime trend perceptions
  • Fear of crime
  • Anger about crime
  • Information treatment
  • Public punitiveness