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Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Reputation fuels moralistic punishment that people judge to be questionably merited

Jordan, J., & Kteily, N. (2020, March 21). 


Critics of outrage culture allege that virtue signaling fuels morally questionable punishment. But does reputation actually have the power to motivate punishment that people see as ambiguously deserved? Across four studies (total n = 9,587), among both liberals and conservatives, we find evidence that the answer is yes. In Studies 1-2, we use a vignette paradigm to demonstrate that even in scenarios where subjects judge punishment to be questionably merited, they often expect punishing to confer reputational benefits. Across a range of such scenarios featuring politicized moral transgressions, many subjects expected punishers to be evaluated positively by co-partisans (and especially more ideologically-minded co-partisans). Furthermore, this expectation sometimes held even for individuals who personally questioned the merits of punishment. In Studies 3-4, we use a behavioral paradigm to investigate the motivational force of reputation in ambiguous situations. To this end, we measure decisions to punish alleged sexual harassment (among liberal subjects) and anti-male discrimination (among conservatives). In conditions where punishment was judged to be morally questionable, subjects nonetheless used punishment to boost their reputations, punishing more frequently when their behavior was public than private. In fact, when approximately equating the strength of reputational incentives, reputation was similarly effective at driving punishment in conditions where punishment was seen as ambiguously vs. unambiguously deserved (Study 3). Furthermore, reputation drove punishment even among individuals with personal reservations about its morality (Study 4, featuring liberal subjects). Together, these results highlight the power of reputation and have implications for debates surrounding virtue signaling and outrage culture.

From the Discussion Section

Theoretical and societal implications.  Our results have important implications, both for theories of psychology and society. More specifically, our findings expand our understanding of the psychological power of reputation, as well as the breadth of its influence on social behavior.  Previous research has documented the robust influence of reputation on behavior in the moral domain. Yet the focus has been on the power of reputation to fuel behaviors that are widely seen as morally good—such as direct acts of cooperation, or acts of punishment that are presumed to be seen by subjects as clearly justified.Thus, previous research has primarily made clear that reputation has the power to inspire socially beneficial behavior.  And while our results do under score this observation (most subjects in the unambiguous conditions of Studies 3 a-b saw punishment as morally merited, and reputation increased their propensity to punish), we also find that reputation can drive behavior that is judged to be morally questionable(as evidenced by the robust influence of reputation on punishment in our ambiguous conditions across Studies 3-4).