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Scared to Death: Capital Punishment as Authoritarian Terror Management
University of California, Davis Law Review (1999)
  • Donald P. Judges

American capital punishment poorly serves its stated goal of deterrence, retribution, and incapacitation. It is outrageously expensive, morally troubling, and widely repudiated. Why and how, then, does it flourish here? Drawing on a social psychological theory known as “terror management,” I argue there that it is best understood as a largely non-conscious, symbolic defense against the incipient terror provoked by awareness of death. According to terror management theory, when reminded of their own mortality, people deploy a mostly non-conscious defensive process that reduces anxiety by enhancing self-esteem through identification with and protection of cultural worldview. This defense manifests in hyperpunitiveness, aggression against perceived values-transgressors, and authoritarianism. Thus, in a death-related context, people tend to defend against the incipient anxiety associated with awareness of mortality by inflicting extra punishment on others who appear threatening. Capital punishment seems especially prone to provoke this “terror management effect” because it simultaneously: (a) provides a reminder of human mortality; (b) presents an opportunity not only to aggress against a threatening target individual (who often displays outsider characteristics) but also to do so self-righteously in the name of authority; and (c) itself threatens worldview because it violates strongly held societal values, including the proscription against killing. I explain how a terror management model of capital punishment accounts for the four attributes that characterize the death penalty in America: arbitrariness, excessiveness, discrimination, and dehumanization.

  • Death penalty,
  • capital punishment,
  • terror management,
  • authoritarian,
  • constitution,
  • morality,
  • awareness,
  • deterrence,
  • incapacitation,
  • retribution
Publication Date
Citation Information
Donald P. Judges. "Scared to Death: Capital Punishment as Authoritarian Terror Management" University of California, Davis Law Review Vol. 33 (1999)
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