According to research from the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego, individuals often harm others because they believe that violence is morally acceptable or even obligatory. As a consequence, they do not react logically to material benefits.
The research has ramifications for the criminal justice system, indicating that monetary penalties or incarceration may not be as effective deterrents as legislators expect.
“For a majority of offenders, it’s not worth the trouble to inflict harm purely from a place of cynical greed,” said psychologist Tage Rai, an assistant professor of management at the Rady School of Management and 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 results of Rai’s research, which were reported in the journal Psychological Science, were based on several studies involving close to 1,500 study participants. When subjects in an experiment were reimbursed financially for punishing others, it actually reduced their likelihood of punishing others.
“Monetary gains may conflict with their perceived moral justifications,” Rai 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.”
Rai 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.
Much of Rai’s research seeks to understand violent behavior and how to prevent it. His previous studies as well as the book he co-authored Virtuous Violence reveal that most violent criminals have their own notions about what is right and wrong in a given situation.
Knowing that violent offenders often cite their own moral code as the reason why they hurt people, Rai wanted 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 do harm when they stand to profit from it if they anticipate condemnation from their peers,” Rai said.
In conclusion, he says understanding what draws people to violence is key to preventing it.
“If governments are trying to disincentive criminals, they should also aim to change the moral narratives criminals use to justify their actions,” Rai said.
Reference: “Material Benefits Crowd Out Moralistic Punishment” by Tage S. Rai, 29 April 2022, Psychological Science.
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