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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy
Showing posts with label Punishment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Punishment. Show all posts

Friday, March 29, 2024

Spheres of immanent justice: Sacred violations evoke expectations of cosmic punishment, irrespective of societal punishment

Goyal, N., Savani, K., & Morris, M. W. (2023).
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 106, 104458.


People like to believe that misdeeds do not escape punishment. However, do people expect that some kinds of sins are particularly punished by “the universe,” not just by society? Five experiments (N = 1184) found that people expected more cosmic punishment for transgressions of sacred rules than transgressions of secular rules or conventions (Studies 1–3) and that this “sacred effect” holds even after violations have been punished by society (Study 4a-4b). In Study 1, participants expected more cosmic punishment for a person who had sex with a cousin (sacred taboo) than sex with a subordinate (secular harm) or sex with a family associate (convention violation). In Study 2, people expected more cosmic punishment for eating a bald eagle (sacred violation) than eating an endangered puffin (secular violation) or a farm-raised emu (convention violation). In Study 3, Hindus expected more cosmic punishment for entering a temple wearing shoes (sacred violation) rather than entering a temple wearing revealing clothing (secular violation) or sunglasses (convention violation). In all three studies, this “sacred effect” was mediated by the perceived blasphemy rather than the perceived harm, immorality, or unusualness of the violations. Study 4a measured both expectations of societal and cosmic punishment, and Study 4b measured expectations of cosmic punishment after each violation had received societal punishment. Even after violations received societal punishment, people expected more cosmic punishment for sacred violations than secular or convention violations. Results are discussed in relation to models of immanent justice and just world beliefs.

This is an article about people’s expectations of punishment for violating different social norms. It discusses the concept of immanent justice, which is the belief that people get what they deserve. The authors propose that people expect harsher cosmic punishment for violations of sacred norms, compared to secular norms or social conventions. They conducted five studies to test this hypothesis. In the studies, participants read stories about people who violated different types of norms, and then rated how likely they were to experience various punishments. The results supported the authors’ hypothesis: people expected harsher cosmic punishment for sacred norm violations, even after the violations had been punished by society. This suggests that people believe in a kind of cosmic justice that goes beyond human punishment.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Seeing and sanctioning structural unfairness

Flores-Robles, G., & Gantman, A. P. (2023, June 28).


People tend to explain wrongdoing as the result of a bad actor or bad system. In five studies (four U.S. online convenience, one U.S. representative sample), we tested whether the way people understand unfairness affects how they sanction it. In Pilot 1A (N = 40), people interpreted unfair offers in an economic game as the result of a bad actor (vs. unfair rules), unless incentivized (Pilot 1B, N = 40), which, in Study 1 (N = 370), predicted costly punishment of individuals (vs. changing unfair rules). In Studies 2 (N = 500) and 3, (N = 470, representative of age, gender, and ethnicity in the U.S), we found that people paid to change the rules for the final round of the game (vs. punished individuals), when they were randomly assigned a bad system (vs. bad actor) explanation for prior identical unfair offers. Explanations for unfairness affect how people sanction it.

Statement of Relevance

Humans are facing massive problems including economic and social inequality. These problems are often framed in the media, and by friends and experts, as a problem either of individual action (e.g., racist beliefs) or of structures (e.g., discriminatory housing laws). The current research uses a context-free economic game to ask whether these explanations have any effect on what people think should happen next. We find that people tend to explain unfair offers in the game in terms of bad actors (unless incentivized) which is related to punishing individuals over changing the game itself.  When people are told that the unfairness they witnessed was the result of a bad actor, they prefer to punish that actor; when they are told that the same unfair behavior is the result of unfair rules, they prefer to change the rules. Our understanding of the mechanisms of inequality affect how we want to sanction it.

My summary:

The article discusses how people tend to explain wrongdoing as the result of a bad actor or bad system.  In essence, this is a human, decision-making process. The authors conducted five studies to test whether the way people understand unfairness affects how they sanction it. They found that people are more likely to punish individuals for unfair behavior when they believe that the behavior is the result of a bad actor. However, they are more likely to try to change the system (or the rules) when they believe that the behavior is the result of a bad system.

The authors argue that these findings have important implications for ethics, morality, and values. They suggest that we need to be more aware of the way we explain unfairness, because our explanations can influence how we respond to it. How an individual frames the issue is a key to correct possible solutions, as well as biases.  They also suggest that we need to be more critical of the systems that we live in, because these systems can create unfairness.

The article raises a number of ethical, moral, and value-related questions. For example, what is the responsibility of individuals to challenge unfair systems? What is the role of government in addressing structural unfairness? And what are the limits of individual and collective action in addressing unfairness?

The article does not provide easy answers to these questions. However, it does provide a valuable framework for thinking about unfairness and how we can respond to it.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Parents’ Political Ideology Predicts How Their Children Punish

Leshin, R. A., Yudkin, D. A., Van Bavel, J. J., 
Kunkel, L., & Rhodes, M. (2022). 
Psychological Science


From an early age, children are willing to pay a personal cost to punish others for violations that do not affect them directly. Various motivations underlie such “costly punishment”: People may punish to enforce cooperative norms (amplifying punishment of in-groups) or to express anger at perpetrators (amplifying punishment of out-groups). Thus, group-related values and attitudes (e.g., how much one values fairness or feels out-group hostility) likely shape the development of group-related punishment. The present experiments (N = 269, ages 3−8 from across the United States) tested whether children’s punishment varies according to their parents’ political ideology—a possible proxy for the value systems transmitted to children intergenerationally. As hypothesized, parents’ self-reported political ideology predicted variation in the punishment behavior of their children. Specifically, parental conservatism was associated with children’s punishment of out-group members, and parental liberalism was associated with children’s punishment of in-group members. These findings demonstrate how differences in group-related ideologies shape punishment across generations.


The present findings suggest that political ideology shapes punishment across development. Counter to previous findings among adults (King & Maruga, 2009), parental conservatism (vs. liberalism) was not related to increased punishment overall. And counter to previous developmental research on belief transmission (Gelman et al., 2004), our patterns did not strengthen with age. Rather, we found that across development, the link between ideology and punishment hinged on group membership. Parental conservatism was associated with children’s punishment of out-groups, whereas parental liberalism was associated with children’s punishment of in-groups. Our findings add rich insights to our understanding of how costly punishment functions in group contexts and provide new evidence of the powerful transmission of belief systems across generations.

Friday, December 23, 2022

One thought too few: Why we punish negligence

Sarin, A., & Cushman, F. A. (2022, November 7).


Why do we punish negligence? Leading accounts explain away the punishment of negligence as a consequence of other, well-known phenomena: outcome bias, character inference, or the volitional choice not to exercise due care. Although they capture many important cases, these explanations fail to account for others. We argue that, in addition to these phenomena, there is something both fundamental and unique to the punishment of negligence itself: People hold others directly responsible for the basic fact of failing to bring to mind information that would help them to avoid important risks. In other words, we propose that at its heart negligence is a failure of thought. Drawing on the current literature in moral psychology, we suggest that people find it natural to punish such failures, even when they don’t arise from conscious, volitional choice. Then, drawing on the literature on how thoughts come to mind, we argue that punishing a person for forgetting will help them remember in the future. This provides new insight on the structure and function of our tendency to punish negligent actions.


Why do we punish negligence? Psychologists and philosophers have traditionally offered two answers: Outcome bias (a punitive response elicited by the harm caused) and lack of due care (a punitive response elicited by the antecedent intentional choices that made negligence possible). These factors doubtlessly contribute in many cases, and they align well with psychological models that  posit  causation  and  intention  as  the  primary  determinants of punishment (Cushman, 2008; Laurent et al., 2016; Nobes et al., 2009; Shultz et al., 1986). Another potential explanation, rooted in character-based models of moral  judgment (Gray et al., 2012; Malle, 2011; A. Smith, 2017; Sripada, 2016; Uhlmann et al., 2015), is that  negligence speaks to an insufficient concern for others.

These models each attempt to “explain away” negligence as an outgrowth of other, better-understood parts of our moral psychology. We have argued, however, that there is something both fundamental and unique to negligence itself: That people simply hold others responsible for the basic fact of forgetting(or, more broadly, failing to call mind) things that would have made them act better.  In other words, at its heart, negligence is a failure of thought–a failure to make relevant dispositional knowledge occurrent at the right time.

Our challenge, then,  is to explain the design principles behind this mechanism of moral judgment. If we hold people directly responsible for their failures of thought, what purpose does this serve? To address this question, we draw on the literature on how thoughts come to mind.  It offers a model both of how negligence occurs, and why punishing such involuntary forgetting is adaptive. Value determines which  actions, outcomes, and pieces of knowledge come to mind. Specifically, actions come to mind when they have high value, outcomes when they have high absolute value, and other sorts of knowledge structures when they contribute in valuable ways to the task at hand. After an action is chosen and executed, a person receives various kinds of positive and negative feedback –environmental, social, and internal. All kinds of feedback alter value –of actions, outcomes, and other knowledge structures.  Value and feedback therefore form a self-reinforcing loop: value determines what comes to mind and feedback (rewards and punishments) update value.

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Shadow of conflict: How past conflict influences group cooperation and the use of punishment

J. Grossa, C. K. W. DeDreua, & L. Reddmann
Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
Volume 171, July 2022, 104152


Intergroup conflict profoundly affects the welfare of groups and can deteriorate intergroup relations long after the conflict is over. Here, we experimentally investigate how the experience of an intergroup conflict influences the ability of groups to establish cooperation after conflict. We induced conflict by using a repeated attacker-defender game in which groups of four are divided into two ‘attackers’ that can invest resources to take away resources from the other two participants in the role of ‘defenders.’ After the conflict, groups engaged in a repeated public goods game with peer-punishment, in which group members could invest resources to benefit the group and punish other group members for their decisions. Previous conflict did not significantly reduce group cooperation compared to a control treatment in which groups did not experience the intergroup conflict. However, when having experienced an intergroup conflict, individuals punished free-riding during the repeated public goods game less harshly and did not react to punishment by previous attackers, ultimately reducing group welfare. This result reveals an important boundary condition for peer punishment institutions. Peer punishment is less able to efficiently promote cooperation amid a ‘shadow of conflict.’ In a third treatment, we tested whether such ‘maladaptive’ punishment patterns induced by previous conflict can be mitigated by hiding the group members’ conflict roles during the subsequent public goods provision game. We find more cooperation when individuals could not identify each other as (previous) attackers and defenders and maladaptive punishment patterns disappeared. Results suggest that intergroup conflict undermines past perpetrators’ legitimacy to enforce cooperation norms. More generally, results reveal that past conflict can reduce the effectiveness of institutions for managing the commons.


• Intergroup conflict reduces the effectiveness of peer punishment to promote cooperation.

• Previous attackers lose their legitimacy to enforce cooperation norms.

• Hiding previous conflict roles allows to re-establish group cooperation.

From the Discussion

Across all treatments, we observed that groups with a shadow of conflict earned progressively less and, hence, benefitted less from the cooperation opportunities they had after the conflict episode compared to groups without a previous intergroup conflict (control treatment) and groups in which previous conflict roles were hidden (reset treatment). By analyzing the patterns of punishment, we found that groups that experienced a shadow of conflict did not punish free-riders as harshly compared to the other treatments. Further, punishment by past attackers was less effective in inducing subsequent cooperation, suggesting that attackers lose their legitimacy to enforce norms of cooperation when their past role in the conflict is identifiable (see also Baldassarri and Grossman, 2011, Faillo et al., 2013, Gross et al., 2016 for related findings on the role of legitimacy for the effectiveness of punishment in non-conflict settings). Even previous attackers did not significantly change their subsequent cooperation when having received punishment by their fellow, previous attacker. Hiding previous group affiliations, instead, made punishment by previous attackers as effective in promoting cooperation as in the control treatment.

These results reveal an important boundary condition for peer punishment institutions. While many experiments have shown that peer punishment can stabilize cooperation in groups (Fehr and G├Ąchter, 2000, Masclet et al., 2003, Yamagishi, 1986), other research also showed that peer punishment can be misused or underused and is not always aimed at free-riders. In such cases, the ability to punish group members can have detrimental consequences for cooperation and group earnings (Abbink et al., 2017, Engelmann and Nikiforakis, 2015, Herrmann et al., 2008, Nikiforakis, 2008).

Sunday, June 5, 2022

The death penalty: The past and uncertain future of executions in America

C. Geidner, J. Lambert & K. Philo
Grid News
Originally posted 28 APR 22


South Carolina may soon carry out the United States’ first executions by firing squad in more than a decade. State officials have said that they plan to execute Richard Moore and Brad Sigmon using guns, the first such use of a firing squad since Ronnie Gardner was shot to death by the state of Utah on June 18, 2010.

Last week, nine days before Moore was to be executed, South Carolina’s Supreme Court put the execution on hold, but there’s no way of knowing how long that will last. Days later, the court also put Sigmon’s execution — scheduled for May — on hold. Although the court did not explain its reasoning, both men have an ongoing challenge to the state’s execution protocol, including its planned use of a firing squad.

How did we get here?

More than 45 years after the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in the United States after a four-year hiatus, America is in a monthlong period in which five states planned to carry out six executions — the most in several years.

The situation offers a window into changing attitudes toward the death penalty and the complex brew of factors that have made these executions harder to carry out but also harder to challenge in courts. And the individual stories behind some of these current cases serve as a reminder of the well-documented racial bias in the way death sentences are handed down.

The death penalty’s popularity with the public has diminished in recent decades, and the overall number of new death sentences and executions has dropped significantly.

That’s due in part to the increased difficulty of carrying out lethal injection executions after death penalty opponents made it substantially harder for states to obtain the necessary drugs. States responded in part by adopting untried drug combinations. A series of botched executions followed — including the longest execution in U.S. history, when Arizona spent nearly two hours trying to kill Joseph Wood by using 15 doses of its execution drugs on the man before he died.

During that same time, the Supreme Court has made it more difficult to challenge any method of execution, setting a high bar for a method to be disallowed and by requiring challengers to identify an alternative method of execution.

Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonpartisan organization that maintains a comprehensive database of U.S. executions, told Grid that part of the current influx of execution dates is a result of most states halting executions during the first year of the pandemic, before a covid vaccine was available.

This past week, Texas carried out its first execution of the year when it executed 78-year-old Carl Buntion. Tennessee also had planned an execution for last week, but it was called off with an announcement that highlighted two key elements of the modern death penalty: secrecy and errors. Hours before the state was slated to execute Oscar Franklin Smith by lethal injection, Gov. Bill Lee (R), citing “an oversight in preparation for lethal injection,” announced a reprieve. The execution will not happen before June, but state officials have not yet said anything more about what led to the last-minute reprieve.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Morality, punishment, and revealing other people’s secrets.

Salerno, J. M., & Slepian, M. L. (2022).
Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 
122(4), 606–633. 


Nine studies represent the first investigation into when and why people reveal other people’s secrets. Although people keep their own immoral secrets to avoid being punished, we propose that people will be motivated to reveal others’ secrets to punish them for immoral acts. Experimental and correlational methods converge on the finding that people are more likely to reveal secrets that violate their own moral values. Participants were more willing to reveal immoral secrets as a form of punishment, and this was explained by feelings of moral outrage. Using hypothetical scenarios (Studies 1, 3–6), two controversial events in the news (hackers leaking citizens’ private information; Study 2a–2b), and participants’ behavioral choices to keep or reveal thousands of diverse secrets that they learned in their everyday lives (Studies 7–8), we present the first glimpse into when, how often, and one explanation for why people reveal others’ secrets. We found that theories of self-disclosure do not generalize to others’ secrets: Across diverse methodologies, including real decisions to reveal others’ secrets in everyday life, people reveal others’ secrets as punishment in response to moral outrage elicited from others’ secrets.

From the Discussion

Our data serve as a warning flag: one should be aware of a potential confidant’s views with regard to the morality of the behavior. Across 14 studies (Studies 1–8; Supplemental Studies S1–S5), we found that people are more likely to reveal other people’s secrets to the degree that they, personally, view the secret act as immoral. Emotional reactions to the immoral secrets explained this effect, such as moral outrage as well as anger and disgust, which were associated correlationally and experimentally with revealing the secret as a form of punishment. People were significantly more likely to reveal the same secret if the behavior was done intentionally (vs. unintentionally), if it had gone unpunished (vs. already punished by someone else), and in the context of a moral framing (vs. no moral framing). These experiments suggest a causal role for both the degree to which the secret behavior is immoral and the participants’ desire to see the behavior punished.  Additionally, we found that this psychological process did not generalize to non-secret information. Although people were more likely to reveal both secret and non-secret information when they perceived it to be more immoral, they did so for different reasons: as an appropriate punishment for the immoral secrets, and as interesting fodder for gossip for the immoral non-secrets.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Virtuous Victims

Jordan, Jillian J., and Maryam Kouchaki
Science Advances 7, no. 42 (October 15, 2021).


How do people perceive the moral character of victims? We find, across a range of transgressions, that people frequently see victims of wrongdoing as more moral than nonvictims who have behaved identically. Across 17 experiments (total n = 9676), we document this Virtuous Victim effect and explore the mechanisms underlying it. We also find support for the Justice Restoration Hypothesis, which proposes that people see victims as moral because this perception serves to motivate punishment of perpetrators and helping of victims, and people frequently face incentives to enact or encourage these “justice-restorative” actions. Our results validate predictions of this hypothesis and suggest that the Virtuous Victim effect does not merely reflect (i) that victims look good in contrast to perpetrators, (ii) that people are generally inclined to positively evaluate those who have suffered, or (iii) that people hold a genuine belief that victims tend to be people who behave morally.


Across 17 experiments (total n = 9676), we have documented and explored the Virtuous Victim effect. We find that victims are frequently seen as more virtuous than nonvictims—not because of their own behavior, but because others have mistreated them. We observe this effect across a range of moral transgressions and find evidence that it is not moderated by the victim’s (white versus black) race or gender. Humans ubiquitously—and perhaps increasingly (1, 2)—encounter narratives about immoral acts and their victims. By demonstrating that these narratives have the power to confer moral status, our results shed new light on the ways that victims are perceived by society.

We have also explored the boundaries of the Virtuous Victim effect and illuminated the mechanisms that underlie it. For example, we find that the Virtuous Victim effect may be especially likely to flow from victim narratives that describe a transgression’s perpetrator and are presented by a third-person narrator (or perhaps, more generally, a narrator who is unlikely to be doubted). We also find that the effect is specific to victims of immorality (i.e., it does not extend to accident victims) and to moral virtue (i.e., it does not extend equally to positive but nonmoral traits). Furthermore, the effect shapes perceptions of moral character but not predictions about moral behavior.

We have also evaluated several potential explanations for the Virtuous Victim effect. Ultimately, our results provide evidence for the Justice Restoration Hypothesis, which proposes that people see victims as virtuous because this perception serves to motivate punishment of perpetrators and helping of victims, and people frequently face incentives to enact or encourage these justice-restorative actions.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Moral labels increase cooperation and costly punishment in a Prisoner’s Dilemma game with punishment option

Mieth, L., Buchner, A. & Bell, R.
Sci Rep 11, 10221 (2021). 


To determine the role of moral norms in cooperation and punishment, we examined the effects of a moral-framing manipulation in a Prisoner’s Dilemma game with a costly punishment option. In each round of the game, participants decided whether to cooperate or to defect. The Prisoner’s Dilemma game was identical for all participants with the exception that the behavioral options were paired with moral labels (“I cooperate” and “I cheat”) in the moral-framing condition and with neutral labels (“A” and “B”) in the neutral-framing condition. After each round of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, participants had the opportunity to invest some of their money to punish their partners. In two experiments, moral framing increased moral and hypocritical punishment: participants were more likely to punish partners for defection when moral labels were used than when neutral labels were used. When the participants’ cooperation was enforced by their partners’ moral punishment, moral framing did not only increase moral and hypocritical punishment but also cooperation. The results suggest that moral framing activates a cooperative norm that specifically increases moral and hypocritical punishment. Furthermore, the experience of moral punishment by the partners may increase the importance of social norms for cooperation, which may explain why moral framing effects on cooperation were found only when participants were subject to moral punishment.

General discussion

In human social life, a large variety of behaviors are regulated by social norms that set standards on how individuals should behave. One of these norms is the norm of cooperation. In many situations, people are expected to set aside their egoistic interests to achieve the collective best outcome. Within economic research, cooperation is often studied in social dilemma games. In these games, the complexities of human social interactions are reduced to their incentive structures. However, human behavior is not only determined by monetary incentives. There are many other important determinants of behavior among which social norms are especially powerful. The participants’ decisions in social dilemma situations are thus affected by their interpretation of whether a certain behavior is socially appropriate or inappropriate. Moral labels can help to reduce the ambiguity of the social dilemma game by creating associations to real-life cooperation norms. Thereby, the moral framing may support a moral interpretation of the social dilemma situation, resulting in the moral rejection of egoistic behaviors. Often, social norms are enforced by punishment. It has been argued “that the maintenance of social norms typically requires a punishment threat, as there are almost always some individuals whose self-interest tempts them to violate the norm” [p. 185]. 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Supernatural punishment beliefs as cognitively compelling tools of social control

Fitouchi, L., & Singh, M. 
(2021, July 5).


Why do humans develop beliefs in supernatural entities that punish uncooperative behaviors? Leading hypotheses maintain that these beliefs are widespread because they facilitate cooperation, allowing their groups to outcompete others in inter-group competition. Focusing on within-group interactions, we present a model in which people strategically endorse supernatural punishment beliefs to manipulate others into cooperating. Others accept these beliefs, meanwhile, because they are made compelling by various cognitive biases: They appear to provide information about why misfortune occurs; they appeal to intuitions about immanent justice; they contain threatening information; and they allow believers to signal their trustworthiness. Explaining supernatural beliefs requires considering both motivations to invest in their endorsement and the reasons others adopt them.


Unlike previous accounts, our model is agnostic to whether supernatural punishment beliefs cause people to behave cooperatively. Many cultural traits, from shamanism to rain magic to divination, remain stable as long as people see them—potentially wrongly—as useful for achieving their goals. Prosocial supernatural beliefs, we argue, are no different. People endorse them to motivate others to be cooperative. Their interaction partners accept these beliefs, meanwhile, because they are cognitively compelling and socially useful.Supernatural punishment beliefs, like so many cultural products, are shaped by people’s psychological biases and strategic goals

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A new framework for the psychology of norms

Westra, E., & Andrews, K. (2021, July 9).


Social Norms – rules that dictate which behaviors are appropriate, permissible, or obligatory in different situations for members of a given community – permeate all aspects of human life. Many researchers have sought to explain the ubiquity of social norms in human life in terms of the psychological mechanisms underlying their acquisition, conformity, and enforcement. Existing theories of the psychology of social norms appeal to a variety of constructs, from prediction-error minimization, to reinforcement learning, to shared intentionality, to evolved psychological adaptations. However, most of these accounts share what we call the psychological unity assumption, which holds that there is something psychologically distinctive about social norms, and that social norm adherence is driven by a single system or process. We argue that this assumption is mistaken. In this paper, we propose a methodological and conceptual framework for the cognitive science of social norms that we call normative pluralism. According to this framework, we should treat norms first and foremost as a community-level pattern of social behavior that might be realized by a variety of different cognitive, motivational, and ecological mechanisms. Norm psychologists should not presuppose that social norms are underpinned by a unified set of processes, nor that there is anything particularly distinctive about normative cognition as such. We argue that this pluralistic approach offers a methodologically sound point of departure for a fruitful and rigorous science of norms.


The central thesis of this paper –what we’ve called normative pluralism–is that we should not take the psychological unity of social norms for granted.Social norms might be underpinned by a domain-specific norm system or by a single type of cognitive process, but they might also be the product of many different processes. In our methodological proposal, we outlined a novel, non-psychological conception of social norms –what we’ve called normative regularities –and defined the core components of a psychology of norms in light of this construct. In our empirical proposal, we argued that thus defined, social norms emerge from a heterogeneous set of cognitive, affective, and ecological mechanisms.

Thinking about social norms in this way will undoubtedly make the cognitive science of norms more complex and messy. If we are correct, however, then this will simply be a reflection of the complexity and messiness of social norms themselves. Taking a pluralistic approach to social norms allows us to explore the potential variability inherent to norm-governed behavior, which can help us to better understand how social norms shape our lives, and how they manifest themselves throughout the natural world.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Extortion, intuition, and the dark side of reciprocity

Bernhard, R., & Cushman, F. A. 
(2021, April 22). 


Extortion occurs when one person uses some combination of threats and promises to extract an unfair share of benefits from another. Although extortion is a pervasive feature of human interaction, it has received relatively little attention in psychological research. To this end, we begin by observing that extortion is structured quite similarly to far better-studied “reciprocal” social behaviors, such as conditional cooperation and retributive punishment. All of these strategies are designed to elicit some desirable behavior from a social partner, and do so by constructing conditional incentives; the main difference is that the desired behavioral response is an unfair or unjust allocation of resources during extortion, whereas it is often a fair or just distribution of resources for reciprocal cooperation and punishment. Thus, we conjecture, a common set of psychological mechanisms may render these strategies successful. We know from prior work that prosocial forms of reciprocity often work best when implemented inflexibly and intuitively, rather than deliberatively. This both affords long-term commitment to the reciprocal strategy, and also signals this commitment to social partners. We argue that, for the same reasons, extortion is likely to depend largely upon inflexible, intuitive psychological processes. Several existing lines of circumstantial evidence support this conjecture.

From the Conclusion

An essential part of our analysis is to characterize strategies, rather than individual behaviors, as “prosocial” or “antisocial”.  Extortionate strategies can be  implemented by behaviors that “help” (as  in  the case of a manager who gives promotions to those who work uncompensated hours), while prosocial strategies can be implemented by behaviors that harm (as in the case of the CEO who finds out and reprimands this manager).   This manner of thinking at the level of strategies, rather than behavior, invites a broader realignment of our perspective on the relationship between intuition and social behavior. If our focus were on individual behaviors, we might have posed  the question, “Does intuition support cooperation or defection?”.  Framed  this way,  the recent literature could be taken to suggest the answer is “cooperation”—and,  therefore, that intuition promotes prosociality. Surely this is often true, but we suggest that intuitive cooperation can also serve antisocial ends. Meanwhile, as we have emphasized, a prosocial strategy such as TFT  may  benefit  from intuitive (reciprocal) defection. Quickly, the question, “Does intuition support cooperation or defection?”—and  any  implied  relationship to the question  “Does intuition support prosocial or antisocial behavior?”—begins to look ill-posed.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Moral Extremism

Spencer Case
Wuhan University, Penultimate Draft for
Journal of Applied Philosophy


The word ‘extremist’ is often used pejoratively, but it’s not clear what, if anything, is wrong with extremism. My project is to give an account of moral extremism as a vice. It consists roughly in having moral convictions so intense that they cause a sort of moral tunnel vision, pushing salient competing considerations out of mind. We should be interested in moral extremism for several reasons: it’s consequential, it’s insidious – we don’t expect immorality to arise from excessive devotion to morality – and it’s yet to attract much philosophical attention. I give several examples of moral extremism from history and explore their social-political implications. I also consider how we should evaluate people who miss the mark, being either too extreme in the service of a good cause or inconsistent with their righteous convictions. I compare John Brown and John Quincy Adams, who fell on either side of this spectrum, as examples.


Accusations of extremism are often thrown around to discredit unpopular positions. It seems fair for the person accused of being an extremist to ask: “Who cares if I’m an extremist, or if the position I’m defending is extreme, if I’m right?” I began with quotes from three reformers who took this line of reply. I’ve argued, however, that we should worry about extremism in the service of good causes. Extremism on my account is a vice. What it consists in, roughly, is an intense moral conviction that prevents the agent from perceiving, or acting on, competing moral considerations when these are important. I’ve argued that this vice has had baleful consequences throughout history. The discussion of John Brown and John Adams introduced a wrinkle: perhaps in rare circumstances, extremists can also confer certain benefits on a society. A general lesson from this discussion is that we must occasionally look at our own moral convictions, especially the ones that generate the strongest emotions, with a degree of suspicion. Passion for some righteous cause doesn’t necessarily indicate that we are morally on the right track. Evil can be insidious, and even our strongest moral convictions can morally mislead.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Children punish third parties to satisfy both consequentialist and retributive motives

Marshall, J., Yudkin, D.A. & Crockett, M.J. 
Nat Hum Behav (2020). 


Adults punish moral transgressions to satisfy both retributive motives (such as wanting antisocial others to receive their ‘just deserts’) and consequentialist motives (such as teaching transgressors that their behaviour is inappropriate). Here, we investigated whether retributive and consequentialist motives for punishment are present in children approximately between the ages of five and seven. In two preregistered studies (N = 251), children were given the opportunity to punish a transgressor at a cost to themselves. Punishment either exclusively satisfied retributive motives by only inflicting harm on the transgressor, or additionally satisfied consequentialist motives by teaching the transgressor a lesson. We found that children punished when doing so satisfied only retributive motives, and punished considerably more when doing so also satisfied consequentialist motives. Together, these findings provide evidence for the presence of both retributive and consequentialist motives in young children.


Overall, these two preregistered studies provide clear evidence for the presence of both consequentialist and retributive motives in young children, supporting the naive pluralism hypothesis. Our observations cohere with past research showing that children between the ages of five and seven are willing to engage in costly third-party punishment, and reveal the motives behind children’s punitive behaviour. Children reliably engaged in purely retributive punishment: they punished solely to make an antisocial other sad without any possibility of deterring future antisocial behaviour.  Children did not punish in the non-communicative condition out of a preference for locking iPads in boxes, shown by the fact that children punished less in the baseline control condition. Furthermore, non-communicative punishment could not be explained by erroneous beliefs that punishing would teach the transgressor a lesson.  This demonstrates that young children are not pure consequentialists. Rather, our data suggest that young children engaged in costly third-party punishment for purely retributive reasons.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Do criminals freely decide to commit offences? How the courts decide?

J. Kennett & A. McCay
The Conversation
Originally published 15 OCT 20

Here is an excerpt:

Expert witnesses were reportedly divided on whether Gargasoulas had the capacity to properly participate in his trial, despite suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and delusions.

A psychiatrist for the defence said Gargasoulas’ delusional belief system “overwhelms him”; the psychiatrist expressed concern Gargasoulas was using the court process as a platform to voice his belief he is the messiah.

A second forensic psychiatrist agreed Gargasoulas was “not able to rationally enter a plea”.

However, a psychologist for the prosecution assessed him as fit and the prosecution argued there was evidence from recorded phone calls that he was capable of rational thought.

Notwithstanding the opinion of the majority of expert witnesses, the jury found Gargasoulas was fit to stand trial, and later he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Working from media reports, it is difficult to be sure precisely what happened in court, and we cannot know why the jury favoured the evidence suggesting he was fit to stand trial. However, it is interesting to consider whether research into the psychology of blame and punishment can shed any light on their decision.

Questions of consequence

Some psychologists argue judgements of blame are not always based on a balanced assessment of free will or rational control, as the law presumes. Sometimes we decide how much control or freedom a person possessed based upon our automatic negative responses to harmful consequences.

As the psychologist Mark Alicke says:
we simply don’t want to excuse people who do horrible things, regardless of how disordered their cognitive states may be.
When a person has done something very bad, we are motivated to look for evidence that supports blaming them and to downplay evidence that might excuse them by showing that they lacked free will.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Virtuous Victims

Jordan, J., & Kouchaki, M. (2020, April 11).


Humans ubiquitously encounter narratives about immoral acts and their victims. Here, we demonstrate that these narratives can influence perceptions of victims’ moral character. Specifically, across a wide range of contexts, victims are seen as more moral than non-victims who have behaved identically. Using 13 experiments (total n = 8,358), we explore this Virtuous Victim effect. We show that it is specific to victims of immorality (i.e., it does not extend equally to victims of accidental misfortune) and to moral virtue (i.e., it does not extend equally to positive nonmoral traits). We also show that the Virtuous Victim effect can occur online and in the lab, when subjects have other morally relevant information about the victim, when subjects have a direct opportunity to condemn the perpetrator, and in the context of both third- and first-person victim narratives. Finally, we provide support for the Justice Restoration Hypothesis, which posits that people see victims as moral in order to motivate adaptive justice-restorative action (i.e., punishment of perpetrators and helping of victims). We show that people see victims as having elevated moral character, but do not expect them to behave more morally or less immorally—a pattern that is consistent with the Justice Restoration Hypothesis, but not readily explained by alternative explanations for the Virtuous Victim effect. And we provide both correlational and causal evidence for a key prediction of the Justice Restoration Hypothesis: when people do not perceive incentives to help victims and punish perpetrators, the Virtuous Victim effect disappears.

From the Discussion

Our theory and results negate the hypothesis that people see victims as morally deserving of mistreatment in order to maintain just world beliefs. We suggest that, when exposed to apparent injustice, the default reaction is not to justify what has occurred, but rather to seek to restore justice (by punishing the perpetrator and/or helping the victim)  .It has been proposed that restoring justice is another route through which people can maintain just world beliefs(25, 26). And we have argued it is typically a more adaptive response to wrongdoing, because people frequently face incentives for justice-restorative action.  Our experiments are consistent with the hypothesis that in order to adaptively motivate such action, people see victims as morally good. Future research should investigate whether people also see victims as possessing other traits (e.g., helpless, neediness, or innocence) that might motivate justice-restorative action.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

A Theory of Moral Praise

Anderson, R. A, Crockett, M. J., & Pizarro, D.
Trends in Cognitive Sciences
Volume 24, Issue 9, September 2020, 
Pages 694-703


How do people judge whether someone deserves moral praise for their actions?  In contrast to the large literature on moral blame, work on how people attribute praise has, until recently, been scarce. However, there is a growing body of recent work from a variety of subfields in psychology (including social, cognitive, developmental, and consumer) suggesting that moral praise is a fundamentally unique form of moral attribution and not simply the positive moral analogue of
blame attributions. A functional perspective helps explain asymmetries in blame and praise: we propose that while blame is primarily for punishment and signaling one’s moral character, praise is primarily for relationship building.

Concluding Remarks

Moral praise, we have argued, is a psychological response that, like other forms of moral judgment,
serves a particular functional role in establishing social bonds, encouraging cooperative alliances,
and promoting good behavior. Through this lens, seemingly perplexing asymmetries between
judgments of blame for immoral acts and judgments of praise for moral acts can be understood
as consistent with the relative roles, and associated costs, played by these two kinds of moral
judgments. While both blame and praise judgments require that an agent played some causal
and intentional role in the act being judged, praise appears to be less sensitive to these features
and more sensitive to more general features about an individual’s stable, underlying character
traits. In other words, we believe that the growth of studies on moral praise in the past few years
demonstrate that, when deciding whether or not doling out praise is justified, individuals seem to
care less on how the action was performed and far more about what kind of person performed
the action. We suggest that future research on moral attribution should seek to complement
the rich literature examining moral blame by examining potentially unique processes engaged in
moral praise, guided by an understanding of their differing costs and benefits, as well as their
potentially distinct functional roles in social life.

The article is here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Cooperative phenotype predicts economic conservatism, policy views, and political party support

Claessens, S., and others.
(2020, July 29).


Decades of research suggest that our political differences are best captured by two dimensions of political ideology: economic and social conservatism. The dual evolutionary framework of political ideology predicts that these dimensions should be related to variation in general preferences for cooperation and group conformity. Here, we show that, controlling for a host of demographic covariates, a general cooperative preference captured by a suite of incentivised economic games (the "cooperative phenotype") is indeed negatively correlated with two widely-used measures of economic conservatism - Social Dominance Orientation and Schwartz's altruistic vs. self-enhancement values. The cooperative phenotype also predicts political party support and economically progressive views on political issues like income redistribution, welfare, taxation, and environmentalism. By contrast, a second "norm-enforcing punishment" dimension of economic game behaviour, expected to be a proxy for social conservatism and group conformity, showed no reliable relationship with political ideology. These findings reveal how general social preferences that evolved to help us navigate the challenges of group living continue to shape our political differences even today.

From the Discussion

As predicted by the dual evolutionary framework of political ideology we found that the cooperative phenotype captured by our economic games negatively covaried with two widely-used measures of economic conservatism: Social Dominance Orientation and Schwartz’s altruistic vs. self-enhancement values. This builds upon previous studies identifying negative correlations between SDO and cooperative behaviour and between altruistic values and cooperative behaviour. The small-to-medium effect size for the relationship between SDO and the general cooperative preference (semi-partial r = 0.24) is comparable to the effect size found in a recent meta-analysis of personality traits and economic game behaviour. Our results suggest that previous correlations between measures of economic conservatism and gameplay have emerged because of an underlying relationship between economic conservatism and a general cooperative preference, rather than because of idiosyncratic features of particular conservatism measures or particular games.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Developing judgments about peers' obligation to intervene

Marshall, J., Mermin-Bunnell, K, & Bloom, P.
Volume 201, August 2020, 104215


In some contexts, punishment is seen as an obligation limited to authority figures. In others, it is also a responsibility of ordinary citizens. In two studies with 4- to 7-year-olds (n = 232) and adults (n = 76), we examined developing judgments about whether certain individuals, either authority figures or peers, are obligated to intervene (Study 1) or to punish (Study 2) after witnessing an antisocial action. In both studies, children and adults judged authority figures as obligated to act, but only younger children judged ordinary individuals as also obligated to do so. Taken together, the present findings suggest that younger children, at least in the United States, start off viewing norm enforcement as a universal responsibility, entrusting even ordinary citizens with a duty to intervene in response to antisocial individuals. Older children and adults, though, see obligations as role-dependent—only authority figures are obligated to intervene.

The research is here.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Justice without Retribution: An Epistemic Argument against Retributive Criminal Punishment

Gregg D. Caruso (2020)
Neuroethics ​13(1): 13-28.


Within the United States, the most prominent justification for criminal punishment is retributivism. This retributivist justification for punishment maintains that punishment of a wrongdoer is justified for the reason that she deserves something bad to happen to her just because she has knowingly done wrong—this could include pain, deprivation, or death. For the retributivist, it is the basic desert attached to the criminal’s immoral action alone that provides the justification for punishment. This means that the retributivist position is not reducible to consequentialist considerations nor in justifying punishment does it appeal to wider goods such as the safety of society or the moral improvement of those being punished. A number of sentencing guidelines in the U.S. have adopted desert as their distributive principle, and it is increasingly given deference in the “purposes” section of state criminal codes, where it can be the guiding principle in the interpretation and application of the code’s provisions. Indeed, the American Law Institute recently revised the Model Penal Code so as to set desert as the official dominate principle for sentencing. And courts have identified desert as the guiding principle in a variety of contexts, as with the Supreme Court’s enthroning retributivism as the “primary justification for the death penalty.” While retributivism provides one of the main sources of justification for punishment within the criminal justice system, there are good philosophical and practical reasons for rejecting it. One such reason is that it is unclear that agents truly deserve to suffer for the wrongs they have done in the sense required by retributivism. In the first section, I explore the retributivist justification of punishment and explain why it is inconsistent with free will skepticism. In the second section, I then argue that even if one is not convinced by the arguments for free will skepticism, there remains a strong epistemic argument against causing harm on retributivist grounds that undermines both libertarian and compatibilist attempts to justify it. I maintain that this argument provides sufficient reason for rejecting the retributive justification of criminal punishment. I conclude in the third section by briefly sketching my public health-quarantine model, a non-retributive alternative for addressing criminal behavior that draws on the public health framework and prioritizes prevention and social justice. I argue that the model is not only consistent with free will skepticism and the epistemic argument against retributivism, it also provides the most justified, humane, and effective way of dealing with criminal behavior.

The info is here.