People Hurt Other People to Signal Their Own Goodness

Summary: People who intentionally hurt others because they believe they are morally right or justified, do not respond rationally to material benefits, a new study reports. Researchers say those who punish others to signal their own “moral goodness” may be more likely to question their claims of moral righteousness when judged negatively by their peers.

Source: UCSD

Findings from a new University of California San Diego Rady School of Management 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 an effective 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,” 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.”

Rai’s 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,” 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, 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.

This shows a woman crying
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. Image is in the public domain

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.

About this psychology and morality research news

Author: Press Office
Source: UCSD
Contact: Press Office – UCSD
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Material Benefits Crowd Out Moralistic Punishment” by Tage S. Rai. Psychological Science


Material Benefits Crowd Out Moralistic Punishment

Across four experiments with U.S.-based online participants (N = 1,495 adults), I found that paying people to engage in moralistic punishment reduces their willingness to do so. In an economic game with real stakes, providing a monetary bonus for engaging in third-party punishment of unfair offers nearly cut participants’ willingness to do so in half.

In judgments of hypothetical transgressions, participants viewed punishers who accepted payment as having worse character and rated the punishers’ punitive actions as less morally acceptable. Willingness to engage in punishment was restored if participants were offered large enough payments or were told that punishment accompanied by payment still signals moral virtue.

Data were consistent with a signal-corruption mechanism whereby payment interferes with the prosocial signal that moralistic punishment provides about a punisher’s motives.

These findings have implications for the cultural evolution of punishment and suggest that understanding perpetrators’ sociomoral incentives is essential to implementing conflict-reduction policies.

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  1. For most offenders, causing harm purely out of cynical greed is not worth the trouble. Much of the research is focused on understanding aggressive behavior and how to prevent it. The results of past research show that most violent criminals have their own ideas about what is right and what is wrong in a given situation.

  2. Disgusting! Another reason to distrust Media as well as “Science” and the Medical community. Pathetic art

  3. Tough read this morning.

    Monetary gain is not the main initiative to inflict pain on others, but moral justice is.

    1. Moral is trendy nowadays. If mister potato is no longer a toy of choice for children because of its gender orientation then what is enough to justify inflicting suffering on another? What is right or wrong is now a lot more oriented toward the personal point of view than collective beliefs

    2. False representation and poor media coverage. How many times have we been misled by the media? What we see or hear is often a micro picture of a big picture problem. One can question, what kind of leverage was enough to inflict pain on another? What does it take? Does it only take the next gossip, does someone back the facts? If you think like me that moral is now at a personal level you would question it too.

    3. Socio-economic. I have a hard time believing someone having just enough to meet basic needs would not consider more the monetary exchange for inflicting harm to another.

    Regardless it’s scary. Daily brainwashing by heroism leads to self-motivated justice mixed with the worst information coverage of all time you have a ticking time bomb for civil wars in your neighbourhood

  4. You seriously saw January 6th folks as fitting this model, but not the violent leftist terrorists that burned our cities? Your political bias detracts from an otherwise thoughtful article.

    1. True that author appears to have misused professional platform to promote political inclination. I agree with the fact that it was properly used to make the point of article theme. The mistake was not balancing illustration with left political example. BUT, don’t be distracted, the science is the point. Once we understand that we can detect and apply the principles ourselves to any people or situations.

  5. Typically, I either learn something new and/or enjoy articles provided by “Neuroscience,but definitely not with this one. It’s probably the most poorly constructed research study I’ve ever read. How in the world do you take non-criminals in a controlled lab setting, pay them to punish other non-criminals, record the data based on non-criminals’ behaviors and associate that with actual criminal mindset and behavior??? None of this research study makes sense. It’s also lacking vital information on how the study was conducted. I made the assumption the participants did not have a criminal history. Maybe I’m wrong. It wasn’t stated. Also, what kind of punishment? How was that administered? Sounds like it could be unethical, but once again, maybe not. It wasn’t explained. Also, what types of crimes are less likely to be committed if there isn’t monetary gain? This study lacks any logic. How about study the actual mindset, behaviors, personal/familial history of real criminals??? Also, specify the crime(s) associated with the aforementioned factors. Common sense tells me paying people to punish other people in a controlled lab setting is not going to provide significant information about criminal behavior and/or how to help to deter it.

    1. Criminals,njon criminals…you get that criminals are just people, right? Also the story wasn’t about criminality,it was about the justifications for hurting others. That exists in so many contexts outside criminality,and many times the law helps.

      1. “Just” people? Criminals score SIGNIFICANTLY higher in measures of sociopathy and psycopathy than the general population.

  6. Thank You!!!!!!!!! for this eye opening information you gave me some understanding to a situation
    that (similar) I’m dealing with!!! Please Neuroscience News!!! DON’T STOP.

  7. Sometimes I think that people from human sciences don’t have nothing better to do and wake-up thinking: “What am I going to do today to argue with an ideological bias?”

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