Sorting guilty minds

Francis X. Shen, Morris B. Hoffman, Owen D. Jones, Joshua D. Greene, René Marois

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Because punishable guilt requires that bad thoughts accompany bad acts, the Model Penal Code (MPC) typically requires that jurors infer the mental state of a criminal defendant at the time the crime was committed. Specifically, jurors must sort the defendant's mental state into one of four specific categories-purposeful, knowing, reckless, or negligent-which will in turn define both the nature of the crime and the degree of the punishment. The MPC therefore assumes that ordinary people naturally sort mental states into these four categories with a high degree of accuracy, or at least that they can reliably do so when properly instructed. It also assumes that ordinary people will order these categories of mental state, by increasing amount of punishment, in the same severity hierarchy that the MPC prescribes. The MPC, now turning fifty years old, has previously escaped the scrutiny of comprehensive empirical research on these assumptions underlying its culpability architecture. Our new empirical studies, reported here, find that most of the mens rea assumptions embedded in the MPC are reasonably accurate as a behavioral matter. Even without the aid of the MPC definitions, subjects were able to distinguish regularly and accurately among purposeful, negligent, and blameless conduct. However, our subjects failed to distinguish reliably between knowing and reckless conduct. This failure can have significant sentencing consequences for certain crimes, especially homicide.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1306-1360
Number of pages55
JournalNew York University Law Review
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 17 2011

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Sorting guilty minds'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this