Rebecca R ThompsonDana Rose GarfinE. Alison HolmanRoxane Cohen Silver; First published: Nov 2020; DOI: 10.1037/law0000244


Humans seek consistency between their internal thoughts and the outside world. Thus, when legal authorities make decisions, people are likely to accept and obey these decisions in order to remain consistent with the societies in which they live. Few studies have explored these biases in an applied context. We examined the relationship between the sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (the Boston Marathon bomber) and Americans’ opinions about his punishment in a natural quasi-experiment. We expected that Tsarnaev’s sentencing would be associated with increased support for his death penalty sentence, in a manner consistent with the legitimization literature. A survey of a representative U.S. national sample (N=3,341; 78.13% total response rate) was conducted between April 29 and June 26, 2015. We assessed views about Tsarnaev’s sentencing (i.e., whether he should receive the death penalty), political party, demographics, and psychological indicators; 81.77% of our sample completed the survey prior to Tsarnaev’s sentencing and 18.23% completed the survey afterwards. Multiple logistic regression analyses indicated that those who completed the survey after Tsarnaev was sentenced to death were more likely to support a death penalty sentence than were those who took the survey prior to the sentencing (OR=1.48, p=.007; 95% confidence [1.11, 1.96]). These results remained significant after adjusting for significant covariates, including male gender, White race, Protestant-Christian religious affiliation, Boston residency, beliefs in a just world, and Republican political party identification. Results of this quasi-experiment suggest that people adjust their opinions to be consistent with the fait accompli, particularly once the outcome is widely known.