For punishment, actions speak louder than intentions

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© Tetra Images/Tetra Images/Corbis

© Tetra Images/Tetra Images/Corbis

When doling out punishment for crimes or misdeeds, the rules of society tend to focus more on the results of behavior, and not as much on intentions: a person who runs a red light through an empty intersection may get a ticket, but a person who runs a red light, crashes into another car and injures that driver will likely face more severe consequences, even if, for both, the intention (or negligence) was the same.

To understand how people weigh intention versus outcome when they are the ones deciding punishment, researchers from Harvard University and the Stockholm School of Economics recruited 180 people between the ages of 15 and 69 to participate in a complicated economic game. The experiment—which, broadly, incorporated elements of both control and chance that resulted in economic gains and losses—was designed to reveal just how much people value others’ intentions when they’re weighed alongside the actual results of their actions. In the study, published in the journal PLoS One the researchers showed that, more often than not, people tend to punish others based on results, not intentions. It’s a phenomenon that has been documented before, largely in psychology literature, and which the researchers refer to as “outcome bias.”

The way that they were able to demonstrate this bias was by establishing a complex game involving two players. Player 1 was given three dice, A, B and C. Die A favored Player 1—for the six sides of die A, four sides would reward Player 1 with a sum of $10, one side meant both Player 1 and Player 2 got $5, and one side meant Player 2 got all $10. Die B was “fair,” meaning that three sides rewarded the money to Player 1, three sides to Player 2. Lastly, Die C was skewed in favor of Player 2. Both players knew of the biases in the dice, so depending on which die Player 1 chose to roll, his or her intention was plain—”selfish,” “fair” or “generous.”

Yet, while Player 2 had no influence over which die Player 1 chose to roll, he or she was given the power to “punish” Player 1 by changing the amount rewarded (adding or subtracting up to $9 after each roll).

What the researchers found was that, in some incidences people seemed to weigh intentions when they decided on appropriate monetary punishments or rewards, but for the most part, outcome was the primary determinant. “On average, Player 2 punished Player 1 for bad outcomes even when her intentions were good and rewarded Player 1 for good outcomes even when her intentions were bad.”

The study also had two control groups—one in which Player 1 had no sway over how the money was distributed, and another in which Player 1 had total control, and nothing was left up to chance. Echoing the findings of previous research, they saw that, people tend to be much more sensitive to “stingy” outcomes when they believed that Player 1 had some—or total—control of how the money was distributed.

The findings, the researchers say, highlight the nuanced relationship between perceived control, intentionality and results that lies at the heart of the punitive decisions made every day on all levels of society. A possible next step in the research, they say, would be to invite a third party into the game to dole out reward and punishment—a scenario that would perhaps more closely reflect that of a real world courtroom.