Deterrence Theory of Punishment: Definition & Effect on Law Obedience

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  • 0:05 Why Do People Obey the Law?
  • 0:44 Deterrence Theory
  • 1:59 How Do We Stop Drunk Driving?
  • 2:58 Is the Death Penalty…
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Deterrence theory says that people obey the law because they are scared of getting caught and being punished. In this lesson, we'll look more closely at deterrence theory and how it relates to drunk driving and the death penalty.

Why Do People Obey the Law?

If you knew that you could get away with a crime, would you do it? For example, let's say that you want a candy bar but don't have the money for it. Would you take it if you knew you wouldn't get caught? What about a more serious crime - like burglary or murder?

For decades, psychologists have researched why people obey the law. Is it because of their moral values or because they're afraid of the punishment if they get caught? And what types of punishment are the best at deterring criminals? These are the questions psychologists try to answer. Let's look at some of the things their research can tell us about why people obey the law.

Deterrence Theory

Let's go back to the candy bar scenario above. What if you really wanted that candy bar, but you knew you'd probably get caught stealing it? Would you be more or less likely to take it than if you knew you could get away with it?

Deterrence theory says that people don't commit crimes because they are afraid of getting caught - instead of being motivated by some deep moral sense. According to deterrence theory, people are most likely to be dissuaded from committing a crime if the punishment is swift, certain and severe. For example, in the candy bar theft, if there is a low likelihood that you'll get caught or if the punishment for getting caught is just a warning, deterrence theory says you'll be more likely to steal it.

Deterrence theory has received some criticism because it makes three assumptions. It assumes that people:

  1. Know what the penalties for a crime are
  2. Have good control over their actions
  3. Think things through and make choices about their behavior based on logic, not passion

In the case of many crimes, these three assumptions just aren't true. Even so, deterrence theory does seem to have some merit, especially in the case of drunk driving.

How Do We Stop Drunk Driving?

Remember that the criteria for successfully deterring criminals is that the punishment be swift, certain and severe. Many studies have been done on how to prevent drunk driving, and what they've found seems to partially fit deterrence theory.

Studies have shown that increasing the severity of the punishment for drunk driving is not very effective, but increasing the chance that drunk drivers will be caught does act as a good deterrent. So, in the case of drunk driving, the punishment being certain is more of a deterrent than it being severe.

Remember that one critique of deterrence theory is that it assumes that people make logical decisions about their behavior. Often, crimes like murder and assault are crimes of passion, and that assumption doesn't work. But drunk driving tends to be a logical decision; people assess whether they are sober enough to drive. So, perhaps that's why the theory works so well with that example.

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