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Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Diffusion of Punishment in Collective Norm Violations

Keshmirian, A., Hemmatian, B., et al. 
(2022, March 7). PsyArXiv


People assign less punishment to individuals who inflict harm collectively, compared to those who do so alone. We show that this arises from judgments of diminished individual causal responsibility in the collective cases. In Experiment 1, participants (N=1002) assigned less punishment to individuals involved in collective actions leading to intentional and accidental deaths, but not failed attempts, emphasizing that harmful outcomes, but not malicious intentions, were necessary and sufficient for the diffusion of punishment. Experiments 2.a compared the diffusion of punishment for harmful actions with ‘victimless’ purity violations (e.g., eating human flesh in groups; N=752). In victimless cases, where the question of causal responsibility for harm does not arise, diffusion of collective responsibility was greatly reduced—an effect replicated in Experiment 2.b (N= 500). We propose discounting in causal attribution as the underlying cognitive mechanism for reduction in proposed punishment for collective harmful actions.

From the Discussion

Our findings also bear on theories of moral judgment. First, they support the dissociation of causal and mental-state processes in moral judgment (Cushman, 2008; Rottman & Young, 2019;  Young  et  al.,  2007,  2010).  Second, they  support  disparate judgment processes  for harmful versus "victimless" moral violations (Chakroff et al., 2013, 2017; Dungan et al., 2017; Giner-Sorolla & Chapman, 2017; Rottman & Young, 2019). Third, they reinforce the idea that punishment often involves a "backward-looking" retributive focus on responsibility, rather than a "forwards-looking" focus on rehabilitation, incapacitation, or deterrence (which, we presume, would generally favor treating solo and group actors equivalently). Punishers' future-oriented  self-serving  motives  and  their  evolutionary  roots need  further  investigation as alternative sources for  punishment  diffusion.  For  instance,  punishing  joint  violators may produce more enemies for the punisher, reducing the motivation for a severe response.

Whether the diffusion of punishment and our causal explanation for it extends to other moral domains (e.g., fairness; Graham et al., 2011)is a topic for future research. Another interesting extension is whether different causal structures produce different effects on judgments. Our vignettes  were  intentionally  ambiguous  about  causal  chains  and  whether  multiple  agents overdetermined  the  harmful  outcome.  Contrasting  diffusion  in  conjunctive  moral norm violation (when collaboration is necessary for violation) with disjunctive ones (when one individual would suffice)isinformative, since attributions of responsibility are generally higher in the former class(Gerstenberg & Lagnado, 2010; Kelley, 1973; Lagnado et al., 2013; Morris & Larrick, 1995; Shaver, 1985; Zultan et al., 2012).