The Journal of Social Psychology, 1982, 116, 287-288.


University of New South Wales, Australia


The high rate of judicial executions in the Republic of South Africa has attracted worldwide attention. An obvious hypothesis in explanation of the phenomenon would be that white South Africans as individuals are particularly punitive. Punitiveness was linked by Adorno et al. (1) with racism and authoritarianism. In the present study, therefore, it was hypothesized that there would be particularly high popular support in South Africa for the death penalty.

An international series of studies was carried out to give a baseline against which South African attitudes might be compared. Details of these surveys have been given elsewhere (2) but, briefly, random cluster samples of approximately 100 people each were gathered in the Johannesburg, Los Angeles, London (U.K.), Glasgow, Sydney (Australia), and Manila conurbations. Whether or not the death penalty should be retained for serious crime was one of the questions asked in each survey. There is now good evidence that single questions of this sort can yield reliable and valid information (3).

The percentages favoring the death penalty were as follows: Johannesburg 56%, London 60%, Glasgow 76%, Los Angeles 66%, Sydney 55%, Manila 56%. Clearly, the percentage of white South Africans supporting the penalty was notable only for its ordinariness. Other findings of interest among the South African sample were that authoritarians in both the F scale and behavioral (4) senses favored the penalty more (rs of -.293 and -.335), as did manual workers (rp.bis = .198). Age, sex, and education were not, however, related to attitude. Afrikaners showed more punitive attitudes than English-speaking whites, but the difference was not significant.

The above comparison is of course between major cities rather than between whole national populations and the absolute percentages favoring the death penalty could conceivably be increased if rural dwellers were included. It seems unlikely, however, that the relative ordering of the countries would be altered. It is also clear that in all countries sampled, retention of the death penalty does have convincing majority support.

The ironies in the above results are many. In relation to its own electorate it would appear, in fact, that the South African government acts more in accord with the popular will than do many of the other -- supposedly more democratic -- governments of the English-speaking world which have, in fact, abolished the death penalty (e.g., the U.K. ). Retention of the death penalty is a sign of democracy, not of authoritarianism.


1. Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper, 1950.
2. Ray, J.J. (1980) Authoritarianism in California 30 years later -- with some cross-cultural comparisons. Journal of Social Psychology, 111, 9-17. ; Ray, J.J. (1981) Achievement motivation and authoritarianism in Manila and some Anglo-Saxon cities. J. Social Psychology 115, 3-8.
3. Ray, J.J. (1974) Are trait self-ratings as valid as multi-item scales? A study of achievement motivation. Australian Psychologist 9, 44-49.
4. As measured by the "Directiveness" scale. See Ray, J.J. (1976) Do authoritarians hold authoritarian attitudes? Human Relations, 29, 307-325.

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