CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Plenty of little children want to grow up to be Batman or Spider-man. According to researchers from the University of Illinois, however, there are plenty of adults out there who have incorporated vigilantism into their personalities and daily decisions as well.
When we talk about vigilantism in this context, we’re not actually referencing spandex costumes or how to balance great power with great responsibility. No, instead today’s real-world vigilantes meet their heroic quota by closely watching the behavior of others and quickly doling out punishment to anyone who breaks a law or societal norm. This is especially true if the vigilante in question believes the proper authorities have failed to perform their duties.
The vigilantes described by study authors hardly merit their own comic book or Saturday morning cartoon. Such individuals, researchers explain, are often eager to embrace a role of “maintaining order,” aren’t all that worried about accidentally punishing innocents, and view themselves as kind, benevolent, and moral individuals.
1 in 5 people have a vigilante personality
All in all, the study concludes that for some people, vigilantism is a personal identity driving them to act in certain ways across various circumstances and reinforcing their positive self-regard. Over the course of a series of experiments study authors worked on and refined their strategy for accurately identifying people likely to adopt a vigilante identity.
“We developed a tool, the vigilante identity scale, or VIS, to assess the degree to which people adopt the vigilante identity,” says lead researchers Fan Xuan Chen, a doctoral candidate in psychology, in a university release. “These are people who see themselves as punishers and monitors of the environment.”
Respondents living in the United States, India, and New Zealand completed a series of online surveys designed to “evaluate the effects of the vigilante identity.” Participants had to reflect on their own actions and attitudes however, the surveys also included close household members (in New Zealand) and employers (in India).
Ultimately those surveys revealed that roughly one in five adults “endorse” the vigilante personality. In other words, about 20 percent of all adults in the survey had an “eagerness” to closely watch and track others and — in the event the authorities failed to properly address crimes — punish others they consider offenders all by themselves. Those living or working with these vigilantes confirmed such behaviors with their own survey responses.
“This suggests that the vigilante identity is a recognized presence. In other words, we know vigilantes are around us,” Chen explains.
Exactly what type of ‘punishments’ are we talking about?
No batwings or web shooters just yet. Common punishments include shaming or slandering others on social media, or perhaps even verbally attacking a co-worker without even telling a manager or upper management beforehand. In one extreme scenario, study authors describe a vigilante vandalizing someone else’s car parked in a handicap spot without the right permit.
“Punishing without having formal authority is an important criterion for determining whether a person is a vigilante,” the study authors write.
The research team also pondered if self-identified vigilantes may be more likely to display other personality traits. For what it’s worth, those scoring high for a vigilante identity often tended to be more extraverted, more likely to enjoy complex cognitive tasks, and usually considered themselves as both kind and moral. Most vigilantes also showed a big desire to get the credit they believed they were due for their “moral rightness.”
“Interestingly, we found no correlation between the vigilante identity and gender, or between vigilantism and political identity,” Chen adds. “Their responses suggest that they don’t mind punishing the innocent to deter future wrongdoers and are willing to disregard due process.”
Screening for vigilantism
As of now, the VIS isn’t capable of determining the extent of an individual’s likely vigilantism. Despite that, the combination of a higher general VIS score and other classic indicators of impulsive or violent tendencies could be enough to serve as a warning of potential harmful behavior toward others, researchers believe.
As far as real-world, practical uses, study authors say the VIS may prove very useful while screening new applicants for law enforcement positions, military enrollees, and potential jurors.
“For example, in a criminal context, in law or the legal system, this kind of vigilante is probably an unhealthy presence,” Chen concludes. “Having that kind of identity in a disciplinary setting could be dangerous and problematic, both for the individual and for others.”
The study is published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.