The present research examined the psychological origins of retributive reactions, which are defined as independent observers' anger-based emotions, demonized perceptions, and punishment intentions in response to criminal offenders. Based on the idea that society's justice system has an autonomy-protective function, we reason that chronic autonomy interacts with situational autonomy cues (i.e., opportunities to make choices) to predict retributive reactions to criminal offenders. More specifically, we hypothesized that choice opportunities in an unrelated decision-making context would prompt people to display stronger retributive reactions to offenders than no-choice opportunities, and that these effects of choice would be particularly pronounced among people who chronically experience deprivation of autonomy needs. Results from two experiments supported this hypothesis. It is concluded that retributive reactions to criminal offenders originate from a desire to regulate basic autonomy needs. ©2011 The British Psychological Society.