Earlier this week, I posted on the classic question of whether certainty in punishment is more important than severity. By some coincidence, when I then received the latest issue of Criminology, I found a fascinating new article that explores another dimension of the certainty problem.
The terminology is a little awkward here, but the authors are interested in what they call the “ambiguity” surrounding the risk of punishment. The basic idea is this: two different people contemplating a crime might both reach the same estimate of the risk of getting caught, but one might have much more confidence in his estimate than the other. The less confident criminal perceives the same level of risk, but a higher level of ambiguity. What effect, if any, does such ambiguity have on deterrence? That is the question that Thomas A. Loughran and his coauthors consider in “On Ambiguity in Perceptions of Risk: Implications for Criminal Decision Making and Deterrence,” 49 Criminology 1029 (2011).
Some criminologists have theorized that ambiguity might have an independent deterrent effect apart from the actual risk of getting caught. (1031) If so, then one potential implication is that police can maximize their effectiveness by being unpredictable.