Infamous last words

The September issue of The Psychologist is completely open-access and has a fantastic article on the last words of executed prisoners.

The piece is by media analyst Janelle Ward who has been studying the final statements of prisoners executed by the US state of Texas, who list death row departees and their final words on a handy webpage (as I remember it used to list their last meal as well, but that information has since been removed).

Discourse analysis often focus on the ‘work’ being done by speech and statements, particularly with regards to impression management – that is, how we attempt to influence other people’s ideas about ourselves.

This is usually thought of in terms of future advantage, but in these cases, the future is only a couple of minutes at most, so this raises the question of what motivations might be behind any last words.

At the time we conducted the study we were only aware of one similar piece of work on the topic. Heflik (2005) published a content analysis of 237 last statements (between 1997 and 2005, also from the Texas death row) and found six themes: forgiveness, claims of innocence, silence, love/appreciation, activism, and afterlife belief. We expanded on Heflik’s method and examined 283 statements between 1982 and 2006 and searched for strategies of self-presentation (that is, opportunities to represent one’s identity).

We reported a textual framework that demonstrated a consistent pattern in the statements. Prisoners began by addressing relevant relationships and moved to expressing internal feelings. Next, they defined the situation (e.g. accepting or denying responsibility) and then dealt with the situation (e.g. through self-comfort, forgiveness or accusations). They ended with a short statement of closure.

We found that final statements are primarily used to construct a position self-image, stemming from an apparent desire to gain control over a powerless situation. The structure we uncovered works for both those expressing a discourse of acceptance (‘I am guilty’) or a discourse of denial (‘I am innocent’).

This issue of The Psychologist also contains article on the psychology of flavour, psychologists on Twitter, the evolution of Milgram’s infamous conformity experiment, and many more, all open and available to all.

Link to ‘Communication from the condemned’.
Link to table of contents for the whole issue.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist. My last words would probably be “I don’t think so”.

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