Differences in punitiveness across three cultures: A test of American exceptionalism in justice attitudes

Matthew B. Kugler, Friederike Funk, Judith Braun, Mario Gollwitzer, Aaron C. Kay, John M. Darley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and a more punitive approach to criminal justice issues than comparable Western democracies. One potential explanation for this distinctiveness is that Americans, as individuals, are uniquely punitive toward criminals. The present study explores the possibility of cultural differences in punitive attitudes. Census-representative samples of Americans, Canadians, and Germans were asked to assign sentences to a variety of people who had committed different offenses. Even though Canada has much more lenient sentencing policies than the United States in practice, Americans and Canadians generally did not differ from each other in sentencing attitudes. Both assigned slightly longer sentences than did Germans, however. Americans, therefore, do not appear to be uniquely punitive at the individual level. Also, people from all three cultures were in agreement about the moral wrongfulness of most baseline crimes, indicating that enhanced American and Canadian punitiveness is not due to an increased sense of moral outrage. Institutional explanations for American Exceptionalism in policies are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1071-1114
Number of pages44
JournalJournal of Criminal Law and Criminology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


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