Saturday, September 06, 2008

Research on happiness examines effects of punishment

Just as cutting edge brain science research has begun to force reformulation of many core assumptions in the justice system, modern punishment theories could be radically altered by empirical research on happiness according to a new article which Doc Berman linked to recently, "Happiness and Punishment, by law and economics professors John Bronsteen, Christopher Buccafusco and Jonathan Masur out of the University of Chicago,.

These law profs say an increasingly mature field of research known as "hedonic psychology," or simply hedonics, has developed tools for longitudinal measurements of happiness and a consensus on the effect of punishment on people's happiness levels. Based on this research, their article examines "how and to what extent do fines and incarceration negatively affect happiness or well-being," then demonstrates how the results have major implications for utilitarian, retributivist, and mixed punishment theories.

Much early hedonics research focused on people with disabilities, resulting in the surprising discovery that their happiness levels adapted quite well to even radically changed physical circumstances. (An early study found little difference in happiness levels among groups of para/quadraplegics compared with lottery winners!) Within this relatively new subspecialty:
Among its most robust and consistent findings are two that are highly relevant to the study of punishment: 1) most life events, whether positive or negative, exert little lasting effect on an individual’s well-being because people adapt rapidly to them; and 2) people do not recognize or remember how quickly they adapt and thus make very poor estimates about the hedonic impact of future events. Studies have shown that, after immediate, short-term changes, people rapidly return to prior levels of well-being following experiences ranging from learning that they scored poorly on a personality test to becoming paraplegic.
Over the past three decades, researchers focused these new tools on both the subjects of incarceration and financial loss, with potentially profound implications for how most of us think about punishment. Here's a good summary of what they describe as a consensus among existing research on happiness and punishment:
Contrary to expectations, adjusting the size of a fine or the length of a prison sentence does not meaningfully adjust the amount of unhappiness that is ultimately experienced by the offender. Paying more money or staying in prison for a longer period are highly susceptible to adaptation. As a result, virtually any fine imposes only fleeting harm. On the other hand, virtually any term of imprisonment imposes large and lasting harm by causing disease, unemployment, and loss of social connection; but longer prison terms do not diminish happiness much more than do shorter ones. It is therefore impossible to tailor a punishment to fit the severity of a crime, given the penal options available.
There are major implications for this finding, which the authors accurately characterize as "depriving punishment of proportionality."

That said, humans adapt to some changes much better than others, it's just that incarceration and money fines aren't the big triggers. Researchers say the post-incarceration stigma and harm from severing family and societal ties is actually the greater "punishment," if punishment is defined as reducing "happiness."
While adaptation seems pervasive, further research has demonstrated its limits. Thus, people are less likely to adapt to some health-related stimuli like noise, chronic headaches, and certain degenerative diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple schlerosis, HIV/AIDS, and hepatitis C infection. Additionally, socially relevant stimuli such as divorce, the death of a spouse, and unemployment prove incredibly difficult to adapt to, with hedonic penalties lasting even after remarriage or reemployment.
The authors substantively discuss the major research backing up these findings, for those interested - I'm just hitting the highlights of a pretty substantial article. But it's a fascinating and counterintuitive notion that the portion of the punishment causing offenders the most unhappiness isn't prison but what happens to them when they get out. It makes sense, though, once you see the research about what does and doesn't affect happiness:
People who have spent any time in prison are significantly more likely to experience chronic, stress-related health impairments, unemployment, and the breakdown of psychologically vital social ties. Unlike fines and imprisonment itself, these post prison consequences of incarceration are likely to generate substantial and long-lasting hedonic penalties for ex-inmates regardless of the lengths of their sentences. (emphasis added)
That last bit is key - the worst punishments according to this view are applied uniformly, after incarceration, regardless of how long someone is locked up.

The rest of the article applies this analysis to various, currently popular punishment theories. In particular, the discovery argues against the so-called utilitarian assumption that "the deterrent 'punch' of punishment [is] equal to the pain that punishment inflict[s] upon an offender." Thus to maximize deterrence, according to this worldview, one must maximize prison sentence lengths:
Among utilitarians, the temptation to impose increasingly harsher penalties is strong and omnipresent. The optimal social frequency of most crimes is exactly zero; the country would likely be better off if there were no murders, no armed robberies, no assaults, and so forth. ... Rather, from a utilitarian perspective, the most significant check on the degree of punishment is the cost associated with the punishment itself.
However, if there's limited utility from deterrence due to longer punishments - i.e., if the punishment instituted is no harsher from the recipients' perspective when sentences are longer - then the only utilitarian purpose remaining for longer sentences would be cases where safety requires straight-up incapacitation. That's a significant group, to be sure, but only a small subset of those receiving years-long sentences now.

Research on happiness and punishment similarly throws a wrench in the gears of retributivist punishment theory, which holds that punishment should be based on what the offender deserves, not maximizing social happiness. If punishment must be based on deserts, though, then everyone receiving the same, harsh post-incarceration punishment is decidedly unjust, while the failure of longer incarceration lengths to punish more harshly calls into question whether they're justified based on desert alone.

Other "mixed" models of punishment similarly find their underlying assumptions challenged by hedonics, the authors show.

These research findings cast light on an obscure set of assumptions underlying how the criminal justice system assigns punishment. According to a hedonic analysis, "to some considerable extent, only two significant levels of punishment exist (any fine or any imprisonment)." Otherwise, say the authors, differences in punishments fail to impact the individual by reducing their happiness a greater amount. And the harshest punishments are applied across the board, even to the lowest level nonviolent offender.

I don't present this research to argue for any particular interpretation or punishment theory, nor do I fully understand yet all the implications for how this analysis might inform modern sentencing practices. I merely found the results interesting and probative, so I'm sharing them.

Questions raised by hedonics strike at core, first-order assumptions about the effects of punishment, some of which may turn out to be wholly incorrect. For the most part, they're questions about which no one had previously provided any evidence-based answers, so in that sense this research is quite exciting, cutting edge stuff.


Anonymous said...

I am skeptical about this research because one of its core assumption is that happiness is (1) something that can be measured and (2)that there is a significant relationship between happiness and biological function, something numerous researches have proven to be false. Indeed, and I wish I had a link at hand for this, if I have time I will go look for it, cognitive science has yet to demonstrate any relationship between any brain function and any psychological function.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Daniel, I think a poorly worded lede (which I've clarified) may have implied the authors suggested a link between brain science and happiness. They did not.

They do say researchers have more or less come to a consensus on how to measure happiness, which I agree is a controversial and questionable thing. I didn't look at the underlying research to evaluate those methodologies, but according to the authors the research outcomes are pretty consistent and readily duplicable, fwiw.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I fully agree that the effects of prison are not fully realized until the prisoner is released. After paying your "debt" to society you are permenantly a low class citizen, not entitled to any of the benefits of a law abiding life.

What incentive could that possibly create for an ex-prisioner to lead the life of a good citizen? Most criminals have no idea of the punishment options when they commit a crime so deterrance is not an excause.

We are sending the message that our society needs a lower class? Is the only way to have a lower class, in the land of opportunity, to create it via a criminal justice system that limits opportunity?

Soronel Haetir said...

One area I would also question is how time horizons play into this. I have seen multiple studies indicating that people with criminal tendencies have short time horizons, ie they don't look far ahead to see what effects their actions will have.

I could easily see such a group being especially suseptible to rapid adjustment to changed but stable conditions.

Anonymous said...

Daniel, your skepticism about measuring happiness has been debated in psychology and before that philosophy and physioloy. Psychological measurement of affective/cognitive states has a long standing history (e.g., positive/negative affect)and has been the focus of modern psychological research since the cognitive revolution in the 1960s.
Neuroscience has establish differences in brain activity related to different affective states.

the real question is do you agree with the definition/method of measurement.

I am not sure what you mean that there is not a relationship between brain function and psychological function. They are one in the same. The easiest example would be changes in psychological functioning after head injury. this is clearly a change in brain function which impacts psychological functioning. Additionally, there are studies which have shown differences in brain development, related to chronic exposure to trauma, which have clear impact on psychological functioning.

Anonymous said...

Certainly, a prison sentence further separates the have's from the have not's. Perhap's this is the intention of our society and perhaps not. In any case people who are labled "ex-prisiners" are discredited, marginalized, and excluded from participating in society in a meaningful way. (Winick 1998) suggest that labeling a person "criminal" may actually become a self-fulling prophecy, and as a result it will be more difficult for prisoners to excersise the self control that society would encourage.
Common sense should tell us that if 60 percent of inmates are in fact raped within their first 30 days in prison, how could it not effect brain and psychological function?

Anonymous said...

That is why many advanced civilizations give but short-term sentences, with a heavy emphasis on rehabilitative training, even for so called capital offenses. As little as 7.5 years for murder in many cases. Their recidivism is much less than ours; as is their prison population, general crime rate and etc. Why we can't, or more correctly, are unwilling to learn from them is a great puzzle to me.

Anonymous said...

to anon at 11:23...WTF? Where in the world did you read 60% of inmates are raped in the first 30 days? That's a BIG load of hogwash! get real, dude.

Anonymous said...

How can anyone think having your freedom taken away from you does not affect your self respect.

Some, I raalize do not have any self respect, but for those who are sent to prison and are not guilty and have been successful in their lives and had the DA and Judges lie in order to win a case, how could this not affect self respect?

There are many in prison who should first of all not be there and secondly received too harsh a punishment by the juries lead on by lying young ADAs who simply want to win a case in order to better their careers and not care about the person and families being hurt by them and the Judges.

The ADAs have been known to threaten the families in order to get testimony from them just so they could win.

This affects the person incarcerated and the family members of those who are lied about.

So, you who do not know, should do some research before you spout off!!

Anonymous said...

I find it very interesting we stamp our money with "In God We Trust" to proclaim we are a Christian nation built on Godly principles. Forgiveness and restoration are key principles of God's grace. God's grace is the way in which God chooses to operate. Grace is neither earned or deserved but a gift of God! We are cautioned in God's word to forgive others so that we may be forgiven. There does not appear to be much forgiveness and restoration in the live s of most people when I look at society as a whole. Heaven may be a lonely place.

Failure to follow God's word will no doubt cause much unnecessary human suffering. A great evil has overtaken our country in the way we treat each other. The level of human suffering has gotten so bad that we medicate ourselves with legal and illegal drugs on a daily basis. A few evil people have become rich at the expense of many suffering members of society. Our corrections systems correct nothing! Our prison systems breed crime and misery for the prisoners and society. Preventing any individual from becoming all that he can be in our society lowers the entire society's standard of living even if that individual has been in prison.

1CO:12 We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.
1CO:13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.
1CO:14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.

ROM 3:22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,
ROM 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
ROM 3:24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.


W W Woodward said...

It's a matter of time.

If an offender is punished while his proscribed act is still fresh on his mind he should have no problem associating the crime with the punishment. I believe that is the premise behind the concept of a "speedy trial".

Presently, the criminal justice system takes years to decide punishment and then habitually several additional years to get around to executing the punishment.

By the time an offender is finally punished for his transgressions he, as well as his family and associates, have problems relating his punishment to the illegal act(s). By the time the punishment is executed, it is perceived by the offender as, the state "picking on me".

If somebody needs a "butt whupping" the "butt whupping"
should take place as soon after the offending action as possible so that there is no question in anyone's mind as to why the offender is receiving the "butt whupping".

Anonymous said...

Anonymous on 9/6.

Let me clarify my remarks. It is utterly true that physical damage to the brain can cause mental and psychological changes. What cognitive science cannot demonstrate is a direct correlation between psychological functions and specific changes in the brain. For example, TBI causes different changes in the brain for different people.

When you write that psychological function and brain function are the same, this is the cognitive fallacy. There is no way to argue with it because by definition you have eliminated non-physical causes for mental functions. There is no mind, there is no spirit, there are just chemical secretions. I can't argue with you there because you are not presenting an argument, just a statement of belief. I don't agree with your belief, that is all I can say.

Anonymous said...

Eleven years ago my partner, then a physical therapist, pled nolo contendre to first-degree sexual battery and was given probation as a first-time offender. He did not actually commit assault. His decision to plead rather than go to trial was influenced by the fact that the woman bringing the charges, a former PT client and a liar, had fabricated an elaborate story of assault and had even bruised herself for "evidence," and he was terrified of being convicted on stronger charges and going to prison for something he didn't do. His lawyer convinced him that the effects of pleading out under the first-time offender program were worth the risk.

Needless to say he switched careers and went into sales. He was laid off two years ago. Since then he is unable to find any employment whatsoever. Twice he has been hired in the interview process only to have HR managers refuse to allow the employment - because as a previous "sexual offender," he is a liability and insurance risk. There is no end in sight to this. He is trying to seek legal aid where we live to see what can be done to get him employed. No job means no health insurance and he's already had a heart attack, so his health is uncertain. He can't even get hired at Wal-Mart - and he has a college degree.

Effectively, the punishment for this crime has been disenfranchisement from the working world. You decide if that's fair.