Emotions before the facts, when it comes time to punish the culprits

Anger is everywhere. This is often observed in public, from political speeches to opinion pieces in the media. This is an emotion that is taken into account in interpreting public opinion, especially after opinion polls conducted by decision makers about crime.

INRS professor Caroline Cote-Lucier and her colleagues wanted to understand the role of instinctual anger and quick negative emotional response when punishing offenders.

The results of their work are displayed for the first time When and how emotions are expressed when deciding whether or not to imprison an offender.

Punitive options are intuitive, they work automatically without effort, and they do not need to be integrated into a context.Carolyn Cote-Lucier, professor of urban studies at INRS and assistant professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, explains.

Emotion in microvolts

Based on photographs of about fifty offenders, the Father Cote-Lucier team used facial electromyography (fEMG) to measure the emotional reactions of the 87 participants who had to decide whether or not they should be imprisoned. Crimes are not serious, they are property crimes or petty assaults, nothing very seriousThe professor explains.

They need to make decisions as quickly as possible based on their intuitive reaction.

One student wears sensors on his face while another handles the device.

Two students are experimenting with facial electromyography (fEMG), which measures the activity of the muscles that cause facial wrinkles, in microvolts.

Photo: University of Ottawa / Inspire Laboratory

What is Facial Electromyography?

  • It is a technique of measuring in microvolts, using electrodes and activating the facial muscles.
  • It detects and amplifies electrical impulses generated when muscle fibers contract.
  • This makes it possible to differentiate between positive and negative emotional reactions to a stimulus (such as film, video or music).
  • It does not depend on speech and does not require cognitive effort or memorization.

Thanks to fEMG, we have measured micro expressions that occur on a very subtle scale, sometimes invisible to the naked eye but can be detected by us. These are not total movementsSays Pre Côté-Lussier.

Facial flushing is usually associated with anger, but it can also be combined with other negative emotions such as disgust or restlessness.


On average, participants took 1.3 seconds to make a punitive decision, but the anger came too fast.

In half a second a feeling of anger emerged. We find that this emotion actually follows the same patterns of the accused persons.

A quote Carolyn Cote-Lucier, researcher at INRS

Interestingly, the researchers did not find a link between the reaction to anger and harsh punishment.

Fr. According to Côté-Lussier, the speed of the emotional reaction makes it clear that it is automatic. The researcher believes that anger is felt before a person has formed an opinion on the crime committed or the social reality associated with it, for example the crime rate.

In addition, the reaction of the participants’ anger was more in front of the photo of a person related to the picture we have.The same culpritThat is, a person is considered to be less hot, insensitive, less educated and of lower social status.

Emotion above all else

Our emotions cannot be removed, they are everywhereSupports Pre Côté-Lussier.

Policymakers need to keep this in mind, especially when conducting a poll. It is important to have a public opinion poll and ask it, but it is wrong to say that political preferences are adjusted to a context.Says Caroline Cote-Lucier.

When people say that crime should be punished more severely, they rely on intuitive emotional reactions, not on the harsh realities of crime.

A quote Father Carolyn Cote-Lucier

The researcher now wants to deepen his work on the relationship between intuitive anger and a broader attitude to criminal justice policy.

Pre Côté-Lussier cites the example of the crime rate in Canada, which has generally been declining since the 1990s. However, as a rule, this is not reflected in public opinion. It is important to keep this in mind, because harsh punishments are socially and economically very costlyThe researcher believes the details of the work were published in the journal Psychology, Crime & LawTo (New window)To (In English).

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