N column

Public opinion about the death penalty is largely based on resource scarcity and evolution, according to a new international study by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Hamilton College.

Assistant professors of psychology Ashley Votruba from UNL and Keelah Williams from Hamilton College discovered a link between per-capita income levels and public opinion about the utilization of the the death penalty, as reported in an article by Nebraska Today.

Participants in Votruba’s study were shown two different scenes with images and descriptions that either indicated a strong or weak economy. The participants were then asked to take a survey on what their opinions of the death penalty.

“In two experiments, resource availability perceptions were manipulated for participants to see if perceived scarcity would lead to more support for the death penalty — and it did,” Votruba said.

Her study indicated support for the death penalty goes beyond political or religious affiliations as well. Public perception of the death penalty largely has to do with evolutionary psychology, rather than personally held beliefs, Votruba said.  

“Who supports and who does not support the death penalty is often thought of as culturally, religiously or politically based,” she said. “Our findings indicate that the effects of resource availability — or a good economy versus a bad economy — on death penalty attitudes go above and beyond effects of socioeconomic background or political affiliation.”

Votruba’s study reveals that perceptions about the availability of resources and an individual’s decision making skills are biologically intertwined. Environmental conditions affect the human psyche whether or not people are conscious of its influence, she said.

“From our understanding of evolutionary psychology, we know that the environment matters, even though people may not be conscious of how it is affecting their decisions,” Votruba said.

Votruba and William’s research is backed up by international data that demonstrates a link between nations with lower human development and their likelihood of having the death penalty or not.