For the first time in more than 30 years, support for the death penalty in the United States is steadily declining, falling from a long-standing high of about 75 percent support in 1996 to about 65 percent in 2000.

What's caused this waning support for capital punishment? Some opinion analysts believe it's related to declining violent-crime rates. But two University of Michigan researchers point out that changing attitudes have not corresponded perfectly to changes in crime rates--and in any case, it's not clear that falling crime rates necessarily thwart support for the death penalty.

Even if declining crime has played a role in the nation's shifting attitudes, the researchers argue, it's likely only part of the explanation. Equally important, they say, are social psychological factors that have allowed people to adjust their attitudes without appearing inconsistent.

"If crime had been continuing to rise, I doubt whether people's attitudes would have softened at all," says Phoebe C. Ellsworth, PhD, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Michigan. "But to change attitudes that are so passionately held, you have to have some more active forces at work."

In the case of the death penalty, such explanations are likely based in social psychology, argue Ellsworth and her colleague Samuel R. Gross, JD. Increased scrutiny of mistakes made in capital cases and a rise in skepticism among formerly ardent penalty supporters have given people room to shift their attitudes, they argue.

Ellsworth described their work at the annual meeting of APA's Div. 8 (Society for Personality and Social Psychology) in February, and argued that such work can help social psychology build better theories of how deeply held attitudes change.

Reasons for change

Ellsworth and Gross propose several factors that have contributed to Americans' diminishing support for the death penalty.

First, just as dropping crime rates likely helped set the stage for attitude change, so might have the record high support for capital punishment, says Ellsworth. Indeed, by 1996 public support for the death penalty had become so prevalent that it became what social psychologist William J. McGuire, PhD, has called a "cultural truism"--a belief that is so widely held that it is no longer questioned. Because people lack practice in defending their positions, the theory states, their attitudes are vulnerable to attack.

Several other social psychological factors are likely to have more actively influenced public support for the death penalty, propose Ellsworth and Gross. Each, they emphasize, has provided people with seeming justification for changing their opinions without appearing inconsistent.

"When people have committed themselves to strong support of a position, a position that is ideologically self-defining, of course it is hard to change," explains Ellsworth, "because it would look as though the commitment were not real--as though they are fickle about values they claimed were very important."

The psychological factors Ellsworth and Gross have identified include:

  • New information. Strongly held attitudes are more likely to shift when people believe they have new information, in part because they can "save face," even as their views change. In the late 1990s, Ellsworth and Gross maintain, heightened awareness of cases of innocent people being sentenced to death and increasing publicity about DNA evidence in capital cases made the problem of wrongful convictions appear new to many people, leading them to change their attitudes.

  • New script. New information about wrongful convictions has been reinforced by a new "script," or way of organizing one's thinking about the criminal justice system.

"Ten years ago," notes Ellsworth, "the idea that you could have someone who was wrongly convicted and sentenced just seemed implausible to many people." More recently, however, stories of incompetent lawyers and of police who ignore alternative leads in investigating cases have replaced people's belief in a fair judicial system and made the notion of wrongful convictions more salient. Ellsworth argues that this new script, or shift in what information is salient, has weakened public support for the death penalty.

  • New sources. Prominent republicans, including George Will, Pat Robertson and Illinois Gov. George Ryan, have publicly expressed reservations about the death penalty. Such unlikely sources of opposition to the death penalty have probably helped shift public opinion, Ellsworth argues. As she puts it, "It doesn't identify you as a liberal weenie anymore to say you're against the death penalty."

  • New option. In 1997, the American Bar Association called for a moratorium on executions until it can be certain that the death penalty is administered fairly and impartially. And last year, Gov. Ryan announced such a freeze in his state. This option allows people to change their attitudes without betraying their earlier beliefs or appearing to join the enemy, Ellsworth and Gross argue.

Princeton University social psychologist Penny S. Visser, PhD, observes that the social psychological forces that Ellsworth and Gross identify share a common feature.

"In a sense, they provide political and psychological cover for changing a long-held attitude," she says. "They allow a person to maintain--to themselves and to others--that their old position was correct then and that their new position is correct now."

Broader implications

Ellsworth and Gross's work on attitudes toward the death penalty is part of a broader effort to understand what it takes to change long-standing attitudes.

Traditionally, social psychologists have studied attitude change in the laboratory, focusing on short-term change in attitudes that are often not of great importance to research participants. For example, in many experiments, researchers have asked participants to express their attitudes--before and after a persuasive message--toward subjects such as the possibility that their university will introduce comprehensive exams as part of the curriculum.

Such approaches to examining attitude change have left Ellsworth dissatisfied. With the new research on attitudes toward the death penalty, she says, "We're addressing a question about how very strong, deeply held attitudes can change. And the general theory that we've developed [concerning attitudes toward the death penalty] might be applied to other passionate attitudes, such as attitudes toward abortion, or racial and religious attitudes."

Princeton's Visser agrees that the work touches on a long-neglected area of research. With few exceptions in more than 50 years of research, she says, "Social psychologists have been studying attitude change in a particular way: by bringing college students into the laboratory and compelling them to attend to a single persuasive message aimed at changing relatively trivial attitudes, and then immediately assessing attitude change. Clearly, these conditions are quite different from the ones we encounter in our everyday lives."

Especially exciting about Ellsworth and Gross's new theoretical analysis, Visser adds, is that "it brings to light lots of testable hypotheses about how strong attitudes change in the real world--hypotheses that might not have emerged from laboratory studies of attitude change."

Ellsworth and Gross's analysis of attitudes toward the death penalty will appear in Stephen P. Garvey's forthcoming book, "Capital Punishment and the American Future" (Duke University Press).