When we’re one part of a group meant to decide someone else’s punishment, our peers can sway us to punish more often than we would if deciding alone, a new study finds.
“People can get together in a group and be intensified by the other people in their group to behave in ways they wouldn’t typically when alone, including becoming more punitive,” says senior researcher Oriel FeldmanHall, an assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University.
“Even in a fairly sterile laboratory setting, when you’re just exposed to the minimal preferences of a few other people, it is enough to amplify your punishment recommendations of perpetrators by 40%,” she says.
Group thinking about punishment
FeldmanHall and her research team conducted five experiments involving almost 400 participants. Four looked at individuals’ willingness to punish people who behaved selfishly in economic tasks, and another involved determining punishment recommendations for hypothetical perpetrators of crimes of varying severity.
Across all experiments, participants decided—either as a member of a group, or alone—whether or not to punish the offender. The study also measured differences in partiality: The researchers set up some experiments such that they tasked the decision-maker with serving as an impartial juror; in others, they directed the decision-maker to imagine they were the victim of an unfair offer or mock crime.
The team found that as the number of pro-punishment people in the group increased, other participants become up to 40% more willing to recommend punishing a perpetrator, FeldmanHall says. That trend held true whether the experiment was framed such that the participant was a victim or an impartial juror.
However, they also found some differences. Victims were more readily swayed by their peers’ decisions to punish. In contrast, jurors conformed to group decisions at a lower rate than victims and also took into account the severity of the perpetrator’s offense when deciding whether to punish.
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Using a computational model that describes how people use contextual information to make decisions, the researchers found that participants used both their peers’ preferences as a guidepost for how much they should value punishment and were less cautious about making decisions when they believed they were only one voice among many.
“When punishment is delegated to groups, there’s the benefit of pooling people’s preferences and perspectives, but it also introduces the danger that people will conform to the group’s preferences,” says first author Jae-Young Son, a doctoral student in FeldmanHall’s lab.
“In real-world contexts, such as a jury, there’s a possibility that being part of a group will make everyone within the group less cautious about their decisions—that may be sufficient to convince some people to conform to the majority opinion, and that creates increasingly large majorities that eventually convince everyone else.”
We need each other
Although these results may seem alarming in certain contexts, FeldmanHall adds that conformity can also be adaptive—it helps humans survive.
“People use each other as a reference points all the time because it is adaptive and helpful for gathering information,” she says. “Looking to other people, and how they approach a justice dilemma, can—although not always—be a useful thing.”
However, more research is needed to understand the extent to which people are willing to be flexible about moral decisions, she adds.
The researchers recruited participants from the Brown community and online through Amazon Mechanical Turk. FeldmanHall says she prefers to use both methods of recruitment to ensure that the team’s results are robust.
The findings appear in the journal Scientific Reports. Support for the research came from Brown internal funding.
Source: Brown University