Like?

Deterrence Theory of Punishment: Definition & Effect on Law Obedience

Start Your Free Trial To Continue Watching
As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 8,500 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.
Free 5-day trial
It only takes a minute. You can cancel at any time.
Already registered? Login here for access.
Start your free trial to take this quiz
As a premium member, you can take this quiz and also access over 8,500 fun and engaging lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Get access today with a FREE trial!
Free 5-day trial
It only takes a minute to get started. You can cancel at any time.
Already registered? Login here for access.
  1. 0:05 Why Do People Obey the Law?
  2. 0:44 Deterrence Theory
  3. 1:59 How Do We Stop Drunk Driving?
  4. 2:58 Is the Death Penalty Effective?
  5. 3:45 Lesson Summary
Show Timeline
Taught by

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.

Is the Death Penalty Effective?

But what if we're talking about crimes of passion, like murder? Shouldn't a very severe punishment work to prevent future murders from happening?

That's the theory behind the death penalty, but it doesn't hold up in reality. Studies have shown that the death penalty does not prevent murders. In fact, some studies have shown that an execution is more likely to be followed by more murders, not fewer. Why? Some social psychologists believe that the execution, which is usually covered by the media, is modeling aggressive behavior, and people are affected by that.

So, why doesn't deterrence theory work in the case of the death penalty? Most murders are committed in the heat of the moment, and the perpetrators aren't thinking logically about the consequences of their actions.

Lesson Summary

Deterrence theory says that people will obey the law if the punishment is swift, certain and severe. It has been used to explain why a higher certainty of getting caught reduces the incidences of drunk driving. However, there are problems with deterrence theory, including the fact that it assumes that people act logically when they commit crimes. For serious crimes, like murder, often people do not make logical decisions about their behavior - which may explain why a severe punishment, like the death penalty, does not deter murderers.

People are saying…

"This just saved me about $2,000 and 1 year of my life." — Student

"I learned in 20 minutes what it took 3 months to learn in class." — Student

See more testimonials

Did you like this?
Yes No

Thanks for your feedback!

What didn't you like?

What didn't you like?

Next Video
Create your Account

Sign up now for your account. Get unlimited access to 8,500 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more.

Meet Our Instructors

Meet all 53 of our instructors

Copyright