Misguided justice: People hurt others to signal their own virtue, study says

SAN DIEGO — People often proclaim that “violence is never the answer,” but researchers from the University of California-San Diego finds many can’t help but turn to violence when facing a situation that they consider unjust. The study finds people hurt others because, from their perspective, violence is actually the morally right thing to do.

With these findings in mind, the team at UCSD add that such individuals will not respond rationally to material benefits or punishments. In other words, throwing someone in jail for a violent offense probably won’t reform the offender if he or she still believes they did the right thing. Similarly, threats involving fines or jail time may not be as effective of a deterrent as lawmakers hope.

“For a majority of offenders, it’s not worth the trouble to inflict harm purely from a place of cynical greed,” says study author and psychologist Tage Rai, an assistant professor of management at the Rady School of Management, in a university release. “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.”

People who punish others don’t want to look greedy

These findings are based on numerous experiments involving close to 1,500 study participants. The group received a monetary reward for punishing others. Interestingly, though, when participants actually received money for punishing others, it made them less likely to do so.

“Monetary gains may conflict with their perceived moral justifications,” Prof. Rai adds. “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.”

Prof. Rai suggests that lawmakers leverage social pressure to help prevent future criminal actions.

“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,” Rai explains.

A large portion of Prof. Rai’s research focuses on better understanding violent behavior in general and how to prevent it as effectively as possible. His earlier studies, as well as the book he co-authored, “Virtuous Violence,” conclude that most violent offenders have their own beliefs about what is “right” and “wrong” in a given situation.

‘Change the moral narratives’

Since violent offenders often cite their own moral code to justify violent actions toward others, Prof. Rai wanted to take his research a step further by actually paying volunteers to punish others in a lab setting. In four unique experiments conducted with an online economic game, study authors discovered that a monetary bonus for punishing a third party actually resulted in a decline in participants’ willingness to do so.

“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,” Prof. Rai notes.

All in all, researchers posit that better 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,” Prof. Rai concludes.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.

Comments

  1. I was raised in a family that was the way to solve an issue was to fight for it,Impose your will on your advisory and submit them to get your way I was small and got beat up a lot . Unfortunately they made me tough and I started winning but for some reason it doesn’t work for me.I win a fight that my grandpa started when I was 14, I was kicked out, And all my life been sent to jail several times and prison.I was only doing what I was taught but it not the answer.So when I was a dad I wouldn’t spank or beat my kids so I was unable to punish them because I tho I was mistreating them.

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