Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Discipline and Punishment

I’ve been reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature documenting the worldwide decline in all forms of predatory or disciplinary violence and I thought it would be a good time to look at the Smart Vote on a few forms of disciplinary harshness. In particular I will be looking at support for capital punishment for murder, courts passing harsher sentences and the use of spanking to discipline children. All of these issues have vociferous advocates on both sides and make for highly emotional exchanges. Nevertheless a large majority of opinion supports all of them in the USA - although, in line with Pinker’s book, support has been dropping. Support for capital punishment for murder has declined from 82% to 73%; for harsher sentences from 92% to 71%, and for spanking of children from 83% to 68%. The proportion of the population who support all three has dropped from 65% to 47% and the proportion opposing all three has risen from 7% to 20% - still less than half of those supporting all three.

Let’s start with capital punishment for the crime of murder. Arguments for capital punishment are that it is a fitting price to pay for the crime and that the harshness of the penalty makes it an effective deterrent. One econometric study reached the conclusion that each execution saves the lives of 8 potential murder victims. That is quite efficient, even if there is a high error rate in convictions, but the validity of the conclusion depends a lot on the validity of some of the model’s assumptions. Quite a lot of the deterrent value depends on the perceived probability of being caught and punished and the extent to which this probability is perceived to be constant across all groups i.e. not capricious.

Arguments against capital punishment are that it is barbaric, irreversible if in error, that it brutalizes the population and probably serves as an example that makes violence more acceptable and so could increase murder rates. Reviews of capital cases reveal fairly high rates of serious legal error – around 65% - with many reviews reaching the conclusion that a much lighter sentence was warranted and 5% actually reaching the conclusion that the person was innocent. The introduction of DNA analysis increased the latter percentage substantially. In other words more than 1 in 20 (possibly 1 in 10) people on death row did not commit the crime they were accused of.

Most of the world has abolished capital punishment and although support for its reintroduction has fallen in the last decade it is still either a majority position or close to it. In the USA capital punishment is clearly a majority preference but what is the preference of the more intelligent public? Well to be frank a large majority of intelligent people also support capital punishment for murder. The proportion with IQs above 120 who support capital punishment dropped from 74% to 62%. The Smart Vote however isn’t about what the majority of intelligent people support. It’s about the direction in which opinion changes as intelligence increases. If the problem is tough it is possible for most bright people to get the answer wrong but more of them should get it right than the dull. The Smart Vote is therefore the alternative with the highest ratio of smart to stupid support. It turns out that the Smart Vote has been consistently opposed to the death sentence for murder since 1974 and is probably becoming increasingly so. See the graph below. The ratio of smart to dull opposing capital punishment rises from 1.25 (it’s multiplied by 100 to remove decimals) to over 2 and never gets close to 1.

Of course it is possible that the reason smart are more likely to oppose the death sentence than stupid people has no direct connection to being smarter per se. It could be that they are less likely to be victims and feel less threatened or it could be that they get more education and are indoctrinated by liberal professors, etc. So to control for such possibilities I performed a logistic regression where many confounding factors were entered into the model with IQ. The results are in the table below.

As expected, conservatives are more likely than liberals to support capital punishment – so too are men rather than women. Whites are much more likely than blacks, and the rich more likely than the poor, to support it. Age has no relationship. Neither does time period have a linear relationship – because support increased first and then decreased. As hypothesized above, exposure to more education does reduce support for the death sentence but IQ nevertheless remains independently significantly and strongly associated with opposition to capital punishment after controlling for all those factors. This raises the likelihood that intelligent opposition to capital punishment is not simple bias but is based on the relative merits of the case against it.

Next we move onto the issue of increasing or reducing the harshness of sentencing in general. An overwhelming majority of people want courts to impose harsher sentences on criminals than they already do - never dropping below 71% and having been as high as 92%. Only 7-10% of people ever expressed a wish for sentences to be less harsh. What about the more intelligent public? For those with IQs above 120 (brightest 10%) support for harsher sentences ranged from a low of 58% and a high of 90% and support for lighter sentences ranged from 0-15%. Again even in very bright circles you are much more likely to hear calls for heavier sentences than lighter sentences. Also again however the Smart Vote is different. See the graph below showing the Smart Vote over time for Heavier, Lighter or Unchanged sentencing.

It turns out that the Smart Vote is for courts to keep the harshness of sentencing at current levels rather to either increase or reduce it. There is a modest shift of the Smart Vote away from lighter sentencing during the late 80s and early 90s followed by a shift toward lighter sentencing and away from heavier sentencing from then on. This shift coincides with the initial climb in crime rates to the peak in the early 90s and then the unexpected drop in murder (and overall crime) rates from then onward. In other words the Smart Vote on policy is sensitive to conditions. Never in favor of heavier sentencing, the Smart Vote nevertheless thought it a mistake to lighten sentences when crime rates were very high and increasing, but shifted noticeably toward lightening sentences when crime rates dropped.

What about the issue of bias? The usual regression results shown below indicate that whites, women, the richer, older or the more conservative are more in favor of harsher sentencing than blacks, men, the poorer, younger or more liberal. Exposure to more education makes people less inclined to support harsher punishment. The association of IQ with opposition to harsher punishment is still evident after all these controls.

Greater intelligence points away from harsher punishment of criminals even when crime rates are high and rising and moves toward lighter punishment when crime rates drop. Like the Smart Vote on capital punishment this flies in the face of prevailing opinion implying that prevailing opinion is stupid and probably wrong.

What about spanking children in order to discipline them? Virtually all adults will have been spanked at some point by their parents (if not their teachers) when they were children and will have heard the words of wisdom “Spare the rod and spoil the child”. Most think spanking is the only way children can be disciplined since they seem to lack self control in the absence of strong incentives. Even those who don’t think spanking is the only way to discipline children often concede that it is a very efficient way. It should come as no surprise therefore that a large majority of people are in favor of spanking children to discipline them. Between half and two thirds of the top 10% brightest are also in favor of spanking children.

The Smart Vote is however opposed to spanking to discipline children. Look at the graph below. The ratio of smart to stupid opposition is appreciably higher than 1 (100 to get rid of decimals) for the last 23 years. In fact the graph understates the opposition. The categories Disagree and Strongly Disagree are combined in the graph. The Smart Vote is actually for Strongly Disagree with spanking to discipline children. Alternatively the Stupid Vote is for Strongly Agree. The ratio is declining over time simply because the overall population is moving toward opposition to spanking.

Could this just be bias? The usual regression to control for confounding factors says no. The results table below shows that blacks, men and conservatives are stronger believers in spanking children. It also shows the decline in support over the years. Exposure to education strongly reduces support for spanking. Considering that almost three quarters of psychologists oppose spanking it’s not surprising that this view has filtered through higher education. Finally the association between IQ and opposition to spanking is still strong in spite of the control exercise. In short the smart thing is not to spank kids in order to discipline them. Animal trainers have shown that you don’t even need to strike animals to make them obedient or do tricks so why should it be any worse with children?


In all three cases the Smart Vote is against harsh punishment and in all three cases it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Pinker’s book and the Smart Vote have shown that the world is slowly becoming wiser on this issue. Nonetheless most people still stupidly cling to unnecessary harsh treatment as a means of managing the behavior of others. The chances are good that the world would be a better place, and probably their lives would be better too, if they didn’t.

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