Study: What Motivates Us to Punish

More

We're quick to punish cheaters, but not out of a pure desire for revenge. Instead, we only want justice to be served for those who benefit by not playing fair.

RTR34RKImain.jpgParwiz Parwiz/Reuters

PROBLEM: Previous studies have established, more or less predictably, that negative emotions are behind the human desire to punish others, and that the act of punishment activates our rewards center. But why are we so vehement about making sure that cheaters get their due?

METHODOLOGY: In order to determine people's notions of fairness, researchers devised a game in which one player had the option of cheating and the other had the option of punishing them for doing so. There were three different versions of the game that all involved a small amount of money being assigned to each player, with one receiving more than the other or, in the third version, both being allotted the same amount. If players decided to cheat, they did so by stealing some of the other's money. The other players could punish this action by reducing the other's income, but only at a cost to themselves. It was only in the third version of the game that the decision to cheat would leave the other player with a lower payoff than the cheater, and it was on this "disadvantageous inequity" that the researchers focused the study.

RESULTS: In the first two versions of the game, where the decision to cheat didn't lead to that player ending up with more money than the other, the decision to inflict punishment wasn't determined by whether or not the other player had cheated. When the cheater made out better than the potential punisher, as was the case in the third version, however, that player was motivated to dole out punishment.

CONCLUSION: The purpose of punishment, it would seem, is not to deter cheating, but rather to level the playing field. The subject's actions demonstrated a belief in fairness, but not reciprocity, suggesting that the former may be the motive behind the desire to punish.

The full study, "Human punishment is motivated by inequity aversion, not a desire for reciprocity," is published in the journal Biology Letters .

Jump to comments
Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In