The Psychology of Punishment: What makes us retributive?

In a recent post I argued that the retributive conception of punishment, though it can make sense in particular cases, from certain perspectives, is overall incoherent and confused, and we should aim for a situation where it has no hold on people. But this will remain a meaninglessly abstract piece of moralism unless it is translated into political and historical terms. So let’s do that.

I think this will require a psychological treatment – though this doesn’t in itself make what we speak of ‘subjective’, any more than a psychology of what factors affect people’s understanding of mathematics makes maths subjective. EDIT: so the psychological remarks ended up taking the whole post. That’s ok. Political stuff coming next post then. Stay tuned!

What factors will influence people’s tendency towards retributive feelings?

1) Most fundamentally, the confidence of the victim in their own worth (or whatever exactly the ‘crime’ has denied) makes retribution seem less necessary. Why do I need to ‘teach them a lesson’ if I’m really sure of the content of that lesson? At that point the ‘teaching’ simply becomes rehabilitation. To put it another way, inner strength makes forgiveness proportionately more possible.

2) In relation to particular actions, the extent to which someone’s identity is invested in what is denied and ignored by that action – what strikes at our heart makes more of an impact than what, though it might harm us, leaves our sense of ourselves and the world untouched. But this will tend to average out across people, I think.

3) The more the ‘dignity’ and ‘moral authority’, that must be defended and vindicated, is bound up with actual power, real or desired, the more sense retribution will make – because though beatings and cagings are crude instruments for demonstrating moral truths to be, they are very good at demonstrating power.

Those are the hypotheses I’ll be working with. I tried to explain number 3. in the last post in this series, and 2. pretty much follows from 1., so I’ll just say a bit about point 1.

What I have in mind here is a picture sort of like this. In any person’s psyche there are various competing beliefs about themselves and the world. In some cases, where they are very ‘insecure’ there are two or more contradictory such beliefs, both of which have a lot of strength, but of which the person is committed to holding onto one (because the rest of the psyche is, so to speak, ‘built on it’).

For example, someone insecure about their masculinity has two simultaneous beliefs, one in which they are a Real Man, and one in which they are a fag of whatever sort. They ‘believe’ the former, in that they permit it to enter explicit consciousness, they base their overt actions and statements on it, etc. – it has a somewhat foundational place in a ‘structure’ of psychic organisation.

But because the other belief is there, hiding in the shadows, certain stimuli can have a disproportionate effect. When something happens that suggests that this person is a fag, an ‘inadequate’ ‘man’, it’s not like something suggests that they are a cat. Something that suggests that they are a cat is very very odd, bizarre, but for precisely this reason, almost certainly false or misunderstood. It poses no threat. But the suggestion of inadequate masculinity ‘stimulates’ the latent belief and brings it into consciousness, strengthens it.

Suddenly turmoil! If this belief is accepted, it will push aside the established belief (that he’s a Real Man), or at least turn it from a certainty to a mere possibility. And then the whole structure based on that foundation shudders and seems to be about to fall; the experience is of confusion, chaos, terror, and helplessness. Something must be done – and often what is done is to create, as rapidly as possible, a stimulus that strengthens the ‘Real Man’ belief – like punching someone or thrashing an animal. Or eating a beef-and-guns sundwich served in a beer bottle. Or whatever.

So my suggestion is that retribution works like this as well. In the example of, for example, having a child murdered, the ‘suggestion’ of that action is maybe something like this: “it’s no big deal for this kid to die; they’re a triviality, and you, the family members, your feelings and love are also inconsequential” (though the motives and circumstances will obviously make a difference).

Do people ‘secretly believe’ this about themselves? Is there an insecurity lurking in people’s minds that they don’t really matter at all, that they’re nothing? It seems sadly likely to me. But the degree of strength of such a belief will obviously depend on a lot of factors, some genetic and some environmental. Some of the things that might strengthen such a belief might include:

-denial: a life of seeing things that are not for you;

-erasure: seeing the (legitimate) social sphere as filled with people different from you;

-silencing: having one’s statements and opinions ignored;

-abuse: a history of being treated in ways that only make sense on this assumption;

-isolation: lack of opportunities to get reinforcement and validation from others;

-objectification: being overwhelmingly led to relate to oneself as the object of other’s desires or actions, not as yourself a subject;

-rejection: having one’s offer of oneself refused;

-manipulation: being treated like a tool to be utilised, not a person to be engaged with;

Etc. Hopefully you get the idea.

If someone doesn’t have this strong ‘belief in their own worthlessness’ hiding in their heads, if they know that they are valuable, indeed priceless, then I believe that forgiveness would be relatively easy even in the face of serious crime.

But if they have this nagging doubt alive and kicking, then actions (crimes or insults or betrayals) that send this message will make their very psychic survival depend on ‘fighting back’, on finding a way to affirm the opposite. And punishment is one method of this – sometimes the only one available.

This is why I propose hypothesis 1. I had meant for this post to be the last one in this series, but obviously it’s not because the psychology here has only laid the groundwork for the political and historical discussion that I said was necessary.

12 Responses to “The Psychology of Punishment: What makes us retributive?”

  1. Q Says:

    Does it have to be personal? Retribution against attacks on ideas (or laws!) might have nothing to do with personal insecurity, even assuming that what you’ve said is true.
    I could also suggest that it takes a very insecure person to be so unsure of what is just as to be unwilling to undertake retribution. A secure (even proud, harking back to your piece about pride and the Christian sins) person will act and an insecure one over-react or not at all.
    The meek and humble clamour for forgiveness and mercy. The secure and proud, in contrast, dispense neither.
    Isn’t that the essence of the capitalist patriarchy? You seem to be undermining this analysis.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “Retribution against attacks on ideas (or laws!) might have nothing to do with personal insecurity”
    Hmm, I realise now I should have talked about this. But I think that the same sort of analysis applies. People’s self-image is usually a self-and-world image that involves committments about the way the world works, like the importance of the law. Law provides security, which is a key psychological good, and whatever suggests that it’s not being obeyed is a psychological threat.

    “The meek and humble clamour for forgiveness and mercy. The secure and proud, in contrast, dispense neither.
    Isn’t that the essence of the capitalist patriarchy? You seem to be undermining this analysis.”

    But whoever said that? First off, being confident about oneself and believing oneself to be worthy of high positions are the same thing (any more than being sure of your height and believing yourself to be tall). Secondly, what evidence suggests that retributive attitudes are more common among capitalist patriarchs?

  3. Pietroschek Says:


    I have jsut started my research and this article was the 1st with anything more than moralist “lets talk what society wants it to be”.

    What, if the law office is bribed? What, if the law itself looks away on crimes? Am I the only person who ever experienced, that forgiving encourages criminals to repeat their villainy? My questions are rhetorical, I give a damn about answers from you.

    What, if the person social-press-ganged to forgive can simply not afford and/or survive precisely that, even if he or she is straight out of catholic urtopia monastery?

    Any violent crime ignored by the law is justification of demandind more than just corrections to the legal system.

    It is, from my experience, not half as easy, to write such dreamy eyed braincrap on serious adult topics, when one was the target oneself. Get raped before you write, how easy it is to live and forgive afterwards. Get murdered, before you claim to know it all on murder.

    Spoiled rich brats, incapable to survive the poverty they cause and reinforce, try to tell us how it is? Take their money away and let them show us how easy it is without their privileges… or if all against one is as tough, as one against all.

    MY culture is blamed for the camps, all other countries who had them are not even mentioned.

    Is the statement “Serbia was just the beginning” unknown to you? I sure as hell give a damn about Islam since meeting a Muslim-Gang i absence of the craven law and the people paid to enforce it.

    Academcis are the one type of persons who are blinder for reality than the worst cases of the insane. Lets switch roles, lunatics out of asylum, academics into the cells.

  4. Pietroschek Says:

    Damn, afterwars I saw the typos, too. 😉

  5. Pietroschek Says:

    Not typos, damaged keyboard.:-(

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