An empirical investigation of emotion and the criminal law: towards a “criminalization bias”?


This interdisciplinary study, coupling philosophy of law with empirical cognitive science, presents preliminary insight into the role of emotion in criminalization decisions, for both laypeople and legal professionals. While the traditional approach in criminalization theory emphasizes the role of deliberative and reasoned argumentation, this study hypothesizes that affective and emotional processes (i.e., disgust, as indexed by a dispositional proneness to experience disgust) are also associated with the decision to criminalize behavior, in particular virtual child pornography. To test this empirically, an online study (N = 1402) was conducted in which laypeople and legal professionals provided criminalization ratings on four vignettes adapted from criminal law, in which harmfulness and disgustingness were varied orthogonally. They also completed the 25-item Disgust Scale-Revised (DS-R-NL). In line with the hypothesis, (a) the virtual child pornography vignette (characterized as low in harm, high in disgust) was criminalized more readily than the financial harm vignette (high in harm, low in disgust), and (b) disgust sensitivity was associated with the decision to criminalize behavior, especially virtual child pornography, among both lay participants and legal professionals. These findings suggest that emotion can be relevant in shaping criminalization decisions. Exploring this theoretically, the results could serve as a stepping stone towards a new perspective on criminalization, including a “criminalization bias”. Study limitations and implications for legal theory and policymaking are discussed.

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