Home LATEST NEWS Emotions before the facts, when it comes time to punish criminals

Emotions before the facts, when it comes time to punish criminals


Anger is everywhere. It is frequently observed in the public space, from political speeches to opinion pieces in the media. It is also an emotion that is taken into account in the interpretation of public opinion, particularly following polls conducted by decision-makers on crime.

INRS’s Prof. Carolyn Côté-Lussier and her colleagues wanted to understand the role played by intuitive anger, a rapid negative emotional response, when sanctioning criminals.

The results of their work show for the first time when and how emotion emerges when making decisions about whether or not to incarcerate a criminal.

Punitive preferences are based on intuitions which are rather automatic reactions without effort, and which are not necessarily linked to a contextexplains Carolyn Côté-Lussier, professor of urban studies at INRS and assistant professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa.

Emotion in microvolts

Father Côté-Lussier’s team used facial electromyography (fEMG) to measure the emotional reactions of 87 participants who had to decide, based on the photos of around fifty criminals, whether they should be sentenced. to a prison sentence or not. The crimes were not serious, they were property crimes or minor assaults, nothing very seriousexplains the professor.

The decision had to be made as quickly as possible based on their instinctive reaction.

Thanks to fEMG, we have measured microexpressions that occur at a very subtle level, sometimes invisible to the naked eye, but which we are able to detect. These are not gross movementssays Pre Côté-Lussier.

Frowning is usually associated with anger, but it can also be linked to other negative emotions, such as disgust or unease.

The results

On average, participants took 1.3 seconds to make a punitive decision, but anger came on much faster.

Within half a second, the emotion of anger emerged. We see that this emotion really follows the stereotypes we have of criminalized individuals. »

A quote from Carolyn Côté-Lussier, researcher at INRS

Interestingly, the researchers did not find an association between the anger reaction and the imposition of a harsher sentence.

According to Fr. Côté-Lussier, the speed of the emotional reaction clearly shows that it is automatic. The researcher believes that anger is felt even before an individual can form an opinion on the crime committed or on an associated social reality, for example the crime rate.

In addition, the participants’ anger reaction was greater in front of the photo of an individual corresponding to the image we have of astereotypical criminalthat is, a person perceived as less warm, insensitive, less educated and of lower social status.

Emotion above all

We can’t get rid of our emotions, they’re everywheresupports Pre Côté-Lussier.

Policy makers should keep this in mind, especially when conducting opinion polls. It’s important to survey the public and listen to it, but it’s a mistake to say that political preferences adjust according to a context.says Carolyn Côté-Lussier.

When people say that crime should be punished more severely, they rely on intuitive emotional reactions and not on hard facts about crime. »

A quote from Father Carolyn Côté-Lussier

The researcher now wants to deepen her work on the link between intuitive anger and broader attitudes towards criminal justice policy.

Pre Côté-Lussier cites the example of the crime rate in Canada, which has generally been declining since the 1990s. However, as a rule, this is not reflected in public opinion. It is important to keep this in mind, because it is very costly socially and economically to have severe sentencesbelieves the researcher whose details of the work are published in the journal Psychology, Crime & LawHave (New window)Have (in English).

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