The scope-severity paradox: Why doing more harm is judged to be less harmful

Loran F. Nordgren, Mary Hunter Morris McDonnell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Punishment should be sensitive to the severity of the crime. Yet in three studies the authors found that increasing the number of people victimized by a crime actually decreases the perceived severity of that crime and leads people to recommend less punishment for crimes that victimize more people. The authors further demonstrate the process behind the scope-severity paradox-the victim identifiability effect-and test a strategy for overcoming this bias. Although Studies 1 and 2 document this phenomenon in the lab, in Study 3 the authors used archival data to demonstrate that the scope-severity paradox is a robust, real-world effect. They collected archival data of actual jury verdicts spanning a 10-year period and found that juries required defendants to pay higher punitive damages when their negligent behavior harmed fewer people.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)97-102
Number of pages6
JournalSocial Psychological and Personality Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 22 2011


  • Decision making
  • Deviance
  • Ethics
  • Judgment
  • Morality
  • Psychology and law

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology


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