Press Release: Psychologists unveil when and how people punish each other

Friday, July 10, 2020 - Toulouse. An international research team in psychology has studied the roots of punishment. According to their findings, we tend to confront norm violators when we have more to gain from punishment. Inversely, we choose to gossip or avoid confrontation when we have more to lose from the retaliation.

A key challenge to cooperation involves dealing with those who violate societal norms. Humans are willing to punish such offenders, and they can do so in multiple ways: by confronting them, by gossiping about them, or by excluding them. How prevalent are these reactions? And what aspects of our psychology predict whether we will confront an offender or use a more indirect way to condemn their behavior?

An international research team of psychologists: Catherine Molho (IAST), Joshua Tybur, Paul Van Lange, and Daniel Balliet (VU Amsterdam) studied the psychological roots of punishment in a longitudinal survey of everyday interactions. Their findings, published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, show how situational, relational, and emotional factors relate to when and how people punish norm violations.

According to the authors, people consider two types of information when deciding how to punish offenders. First, if the benefits of changing norm-violating behaviors are sufficiently high, then people use more confrontational, direct punishment. Second, if the costs of potential retaliation from offenders are sufficiently high, then people use more covert, indirect punishment.

To test these ideas, the researchers documented experiences of norm violations in a large community sample in the Netherlands across two weeks. Participants responded to daily assessments in which they described norm violations that they had experienced or witnessed—such as antisocial behaviors, road rage incidents, sexual harassment, and offensive remarks. They also answered questions about their relationship with offenders and victims, and their emotional and punishment responses to the norm violations.

Much experimental research using laboratory tasks suggests that people readily punish norm violators. Our results suggest that, in daily life contexts, punishment does not always take the form of confrontation. Findings showed that people were more confrontational when they had more to gain from punishing – when they valued their relationship with the offender and when they had been personally harmed. People instead used more gossip and social avoidance when they had more to lose from retaliation – when a norm violation was very severe or when they dealt with powerful offenders. Feelings of anger motivated all types of punishment, but feelings of disgust motivated gossip and distancing from offenders.

These findings may help us understand long-observed phenomena, such as limited bystander intervention in the face of severe violations, or the extensive use of gossip to keep the powerful in check. They can also help address new challenges, such as widespread moral outrage and public shaming on social media.


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About Catherine Molho

Catherine is a psychologist studying human cooperation, morality, and the role of emotions in decision-making. She draws upon insights from social and evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, and evolutionary biology to better understand the factors underlying cooperative and punitive decisions. In her work, she uses decision-making experiments, questionnaires, and intensive experience sampling methods.

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