People hurt other people to signal their own goodness

June 26, 2022

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People hurt other people to signal their own goodness

Findings from a new study reveal people often hurt others because in their mind, it is morally right or even obligatory to be violent and as a result, they do not respond rationally to material benefits.

The study has implications for the criminal justice system, suggesting that fines or jail time to penalize bad behavior may not be as effective a deterrent as lawmakers hope.

What the researchers say: “For a majority of offenders, it’s not worth the trouble to inflict harm purely from a place of cynical greed,” said the lead author of the study. “For example, as we are seeing with the January 6 hearings, many of the perpetrators of the attack on the Capitol believed the election had been stolen from them and that they were morally in the right to punish the congresspeople who had wronged them. Many of these people will be materially punished for their actions. What’s unclear is whether that would stop them from doing it again.”

The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, are based on multiple experiments with nearly 1,500 study participants. Subjects in an experimental group were paid a monetary bonus to punish others; however, when they were compensated for punishing, it actually made them less likely to do so.

“Monetary gains may conflict with their perceived moral justifications,” the author said. “People punish others to signal their own goodness and receiving compensation might make it seem as though they’re driven by greed rather than justice. However, I also find that if your peers tell you you’re still a good person even if you take the money, then you no longer have moral qualms about harming others for profit.”

He added, that to prevent criminal acts, lawmakers should leverage social pressure as well.

“When people are aware that they’re being judged negatively by their peers, they may find themselves more likely to question their claims of moral righteousness,” he said.

Knowing that violent offenders often cite their moral code as the reason why they hurt people, the researchers wanted to test this theory further by paying people to punish others in a lab experiment.

Across four different experiments in an online economic game, he found providing a monetary bonus for punishing a third party cut participants’ willingness to do so nearly in half.

“The findings suggest people may be more hesitant to harm when they stand to profit from it if they anticipate condemnation from their peers,” the researchers said. “If governments are trying to disincentive criminals, they should also aim to change the moral narratives criminals use to justify their actions,” they concluded.

So, what? The issue of crime and punishment is a hot one and has been for the last 25 years. In 1998 I wrote a paper that postulated that advertising and the display of goods causes most theft. If we create a desire and do not give people the wherewithal to satisfy that desire then theft, including violence in the commission of that theft, will be an inevitable consequence. In the mind of the thief, it will be justified.

I suspect the same is true of the January 6 rioters. They were offered the prospect of an election victory, that was “illegally” snatched from them so violence is justified. Both the thief and the rioter will re-offend for exactly the same reason. A desire was created by it being advertised and then it was withheld. The thief and the insurrectionist were both victimized—at least in their own minds.

If you are told that you can only be happy, rich, valued, or have status by owning a product or winning an election then no amount of threatened punishment will be sufficient to deter you from trying to obtain the object or snatch the victory.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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