Jordan, J., & Kteily, N.
(2020, March 21).
Reputation concerns can motivate moralistic punishment, but existing evidence comes exclusively from contexts in which punishment is unambiguously deserved. Recent debates surrounding “virtue signaling” and “outrage culture” raise the question of whether reputation may also fuel punishment in more ambiguous cases—and even encourage indiscriminate punishment that ignores moral nuance. But when the moral case for punishment is ambiguous, do people actually expect punishing to make them look good? And if so, are people willing to use ambiguously-deserved punishment to gain reputational benefits, or do personal reservations about whether punishment is merited restrain them from doing so? We address these questions across 11 experiments (n = 9448) employing both hypothetical vignette and costly behavioral paradigms. We find that reputation does fuel ambiguously-deserved punishment. Subjects expect even ambiguously-deserved punishment to look good, especially when the audience is highly ideological. Furthermore, despite personally harboring reservations about its morality, subjects readily use ambiguously-deserved punishment to gain reputational benefits. Yet we also find that reputation can do more to fuel unambiguously-deserved punishment. Subjects robustly expect unambiguously-deserved punishment to look better than ambiguously-deserved punishment, even when the audience is highly ideological. And we find evidence that as a result, introducing reputational incentives can preferentially increase unambiguously-deserved punishment—causing punishers to differentiate more between ambiguous and unambiguous cases and thereby heightening sensitivity to moral nuance. We thus conclude that the drive to signal virtue can make people more punitive but also more discriminating, painting a nuanced picture of the role that reputation plays in outrage culture.
From the Discussion:
Here, we have provided a novel framework for understanding the influence of reputational incentives on moralistic punishment in ambiguous and unambiguous cases.By looking beyond contexts in which punishment is unambiguously merited, and by considering the important role of audience ideology,our work fills critical theoretical gaps in our understanding of the human moral psychology surrounding punishment and reputation. Our findings also speak directly to concerns raised by critics of “outrage culture”, who have suggested that “virtue signaling” fuels ambiguously-deserved punishment and even encourages indiscriminate punishment that ignores moral nuance, thereby contributing to negative societal outcomes(e.g., by unfairly harming alleged perpetrators and chilling social discourse). More specifically, our results present a complex portrait of the role that reputation plays in outrage culture, lending credence to some concerns about virtue signaling but casting doubt on others.