Psychology Weekends: Ingroup Effects on Sentencing

Last week, I noted that I went on a hunt for interesting studies. One of the ones I found is an interesting look at sentencing. Specifically, do people sentence members of their ‘ingroup’ more harshly than outgroup members?

A couple thoughts up front before I dive into the research. First, this is a piece that has some definite, real-world implications. People get sentenced every day in courts across this country. For the vast majority, the sentence imposed is by a judge though, more broadly, prosecutors plea deal recommendations also play a significant role. Second, I think this study has a particularly limiting component reducing external validity. It, like so much other research that psychologists do, relied upon college students. I think that such reliance could be particularly problematic in the realm of sentencing, where it’s essentially guaranteed that the person passing judgment will be older—and usually much older—than college aged people. Generational effects can be powerful and likely play a role here that the current study was simply unable to identify.

That said, let’s take a look at the research. German researchers Mario Gollwitzer and Livia Kelle (2010) investigated how members of a group punished repeat offenders considered to be a part of the ingroup. In their study, they hypothesized that (1) people would punish a repeat ingroup offender more seriously than a first-time ingroup offender, and (2) people would not display this effect when sentencing outgroup members.

In order to test their hypotheses, the researchers designed an experiment where participants read a narrative describing a student who hid library material where only he could find it in order to keep others from using it or gaining access to it. Participants randomly were assigned to an “ingroup” or “outgroup” condition. The ingroup condition held the perpetrator out to be a fellow psychology student while the outgroup condition held the perpetrator out to be majoring in a different subject. Additionally, participants were also randomly assigned to either a “first time” or “repeat offender” condition. Participants read the fact pattern they received then answered questions measuring their “anger/outrage” with the crime and their “societal concerns” about such conduct. Finally, participants indicated if they thought the perpetrator should be punished and, if so, how severely.

The results provided support for the researchers’ hypothesis. People gave repeat offenders harsher sentences when they were members of the ingroup. Additionally, evidence did not show the same effect for members who were in the outgroup. Their prior records did not appear to drive the severity of their punishment.

It’s worth noting the authors’ discussion of these results. They put forward the suggestion that the results are due to what the judging person (participant) thinks is threatened. A participant might see an ingroup perpetrator with a prior history as someone who threatens “normative cohesion” of the group and its values. On the other hand, a perpetrator in the outgroup is more likely to threaten the ingroup’s “power and status” as whole.

My thoughts reading the study are that we should consequently expect outgropu members to be judged more harshly on average. Here’s what I mean: a judge may be particularly harsh with a member of the ingroup who has a history of bad acts but may be especially lenient on a ingroup member with no prior transgressions. However, if a judge sees outgroup behavior as a threat to his group overall, even first time offenders should see at least a moderate punishment. So on average, the two types (ingroup v. outgroup) of perpetrators should either end up getting roughly equal treatment or, more likely, outgroup members should get it worse.

In addition to my caveat at the beginning about generalizing due to age, I also worry about how useful this particular case is. The researchers paint a student doing a bratty thing (hiding library books). Would the same results occur if the crime in question were severe such as beating someone to death or burning a building to the ground? What effect would it have if the act was a victimless one (e.g. speeding or possessing illegal narcotics)? I tend to think that punishment doesn’t act linearly. In other words, I think that a sentencing individual responds differently when the consequences of punishment are severe (e.g. life in prison) than when they are minor (e.g. probation). This point about the nonlinear psychology of sentencing is, from what I can tell, greatly under-researched. I would like to see more treatment of it.

Another flaw with the study is the questionnair method. This is an easy way of conducting research and not necessarily as bad as you might think. It lets a researcher control for some other observable traits such as race. For example, a written can hid a person’s race by not mentioning that detail but a live, mock sentencing of a human being necessarily implicates this quality. So, there are indeed some advantages to using questionnaires. There are also some downsides. It is likely easier to punish the hypothetical individual on paper than to do so to a live person. Now, perhaps the Stanford Prison Experiment should suggest to me that participants would be just as willing to exact punishments on their living colleagues but I still would like to see an acknowledgement of this limitation.

All in all, this is some interesting research. If true, it no doubt has some implications for how practitioners might want to approach sentencing matters. You may want to take into account if your client is from the same background as the judge who may sentence that client. I suspect usually, the client will be an outgroup member. But it’s never good to assume. And moreover, if your client has no prior record, it might be worth the effort to paint him or her as similar to the judging figure—it might just make the difference in getting lenient treatment.

-Zachary Cloud


Gollwitzer, M. & Keller, L. (2010). What You Did Only Matters if You Are One of Us: Offenders’ Group Membership Moderates the Effect of Criminal History on Punishment Severity. Social Psychology, 41, 20-26.

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