Research highlight

Social science: Judge not, lest ye be judged

Nature Communications

October 29, 2014

People prefer not to punish unfair acts if presented with alternative options, unless the unfair acts are directed at another person, reports research published in Nature Communications this week. These findings challenge our current understanding of human social behaviour.

In society, fairness acts as a standard for behaviour that promotes social efficiency and cooperation. Previously, studies of fairness have been carried out by presenting participants with two options when placed in unfair situations: engage in punishing behaviour, or do nothing at all. However, this experimental setup may not reflect everyday life situations.

To address this, Elizabeth Phelps and colleagues developed a novel economic game that allowed participants to choose from a range of punishing and compensatory options when they felt that they had been treated unfairly by other participants. The authors found that when alternative options for dealing with unfair situations were available (such as acceptance of the situation or asking for compensation), participants who were treated unfairly opted for acceptance or compensation rather than punishing the unfair participant.

However, if participants were making decisions on behalf of someone else who had been treated unfairly, they would often opt for the harshest economic punishment possible. The authors hope that these findings will inform how the legal system approaches the punishment of transgressors, although further research is needed to better understand these behaviours before any intervention is possible.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms6306

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