ArticleVolume 2, Spring 2007

Regulatory Focus and the Assignment of Punishment

Chloe Carmichael1,

Nancy Nawi1,

Joseph Cesario2,

Abagail Scholer2,

E. Tory Higgins2

1 School of General Studies, Columbia University,
2 Department of Psychology, Columbia University

Abstract

Regulatory Focus has been demonstrated to influence human behavior in a number of domains, such as object valuation and readiness to commit time or money to social projects. It has also been demonstrated to influence an individual’s approach to mistakes; and a person’s preference for global or local processing of information. The present work seeks to consider how regulatory focus might interact with punitive behaviors, specifically, the assignment of legal punishment. In this study, 240 undergraduates completed a series of written instruments that assessed their regulatory focus. They read a vignette that described a target that commits a crime, is detected by the police, and is arrested due to a careless mistake. Participants were asked what level of legal punishment they deemed appropriate. Participants’ punitive evaluations show that there are significant interactions a) between the regulatory focus of the participant and the regulatory focus of the target and b) between the regulatory focus of the participant and the level of detail used to describe the target and her behavior. In each case, when the regulatory foci matched, causing ‘fit,’ the participant was more lenient than in the non-fit condition.