Describing Criminals As Animals Leads to Harsher Sentences

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Photo: Tatiana Makotra/Shutterstock

A bit more from the fascinating world of human punishment that we visited yesterday: "When surveying jury-eligible adults, investigators varied animalistic descriptions of a violent crime and examined its effect on the severity of the punishment for the act. Compared with non-animalistic descriptions, animalistic descriptions resulted in significantly harsher punishment for the perpetrator due to an increase in perceived risk of recidivism."

Back in the 1990s, when everyone was freaking out about young "superpredators" taking over the streets and ushering in a new era of horrific lawlessness — an idea that ended up being utterly debunked — a fair number of news reports argued that "teenagers were like wild animals in the street," as one study of the scare (PDF) put it. When it comes to emotionally loaded issues like punishment, these little features of language can potentially matter a lot.