When Do We Punish People Who Don't?

46 Pages Posted: 1 Dec 2017 Last revised: 30 Jun 2018

Justin Martin

Boston College

Jillian Jordan

Yale University - Department of Psychology

David G. Rand


Fiery Cushman

Harvard College

Date Written: December 1, 2017


People sometimes engage in “higher-order punishment,” or punishment of people who fail to punish others. For instance, a parent might rebuke a teacher for failing to discipline a classroom bully. However, the psychology underlying higher-order punishment is poorly understood. Here, we conducted experiments exploring the contexts in which higher-order punishment occurs, using both incentivized economic games and hypothetical vignettes describing everyday situations. We presented participants with cases in which an individual fails to punish a transgressor, either as a victim (second-party) or as an observer (third-party). Across studies, we consistently observed higher-order punishment of non-punishing observers. Higher-order punishment of non-punishing victims, however, was consistently weaker, and sometimes non-existent. These results demonstrate the selective application of higher-order punishment, provide a new perspective on the psychological mechanisms that support it, and provide some clues regarding its function.

Keywords: Punishment, Cooperation, Norms, Adaptation

Suggested Citation

Martin, Justin and Jordan, Jillian and Rand, David G. and Cushman, Fiery, When Do We Punish People Who Don't? (December 1, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3080990 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3080990

Justin Martin (Contact Author)

Boston College ( email )

140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
United States

Jillian Jordan

Yale University - Department of Psychology ( email )

P.O. Box 208205
New Haven, CT 06520-8205
United States

David G. Rand

MIT ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
50 Memorial Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.daverand.org

Fiery Cushman

Harvard College ( email )

Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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