Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Real Reason People Like to Punish Others

Research explains the reasons behind punishment.

Source: Relig/Flickr

Most of us are well-behaved. We try to do the right thing, follow moral norms, and avoid harming others.

But punishment has existed in every human society. This suggests punishment is a critical feature for the promotion and enforcement of good behavior.

Evolution has instilled in humans the desire to identify and discipline wrongdoers. The reasons for direct punishment are clear. If someone wrongs you, retaliation reduces the likelihood that they will do it again.

Additionally, if others see you retaliate, they will also be less likely to wrong you in the future. Direct punishment serves a clear signal, “Do not mess with me, or you will be sorry.”

Then there’s third-party punishment. This is when you observe someone do something wrong to someone else, and decide to punish the perpetrator. Why punish on behalf of someone else? There is no direct benefit to yourself.

In fact, research suggests third-party punishment is even more important than direct punishment. Third-party punishment upholds social norms.

If only those who were directly harmed punished perpetrators, then only a limited number of norms could be enforced.

For example, if a person steals from someone else and you observe them stealing and do not do anything to stop them, then they will be more likely to steal in the future. But if everyone punishes others, or calls attention to them, even if the person doesn’t directly harm them, then everyone is more likely to behave.

Research has found that third-party punishment cultivates cooperation. And without third-party punishment, cooperation breaks down.

Additionally, the political scientist Robert Axelrod developed a model of norm-related behavior. He showed that most people have no incentive to punish wrongdoers if their actions do not personally affect them.

But then demonstrated that another norm emerges in which it becomes a violation to observe a violation and not punish the wrongdoer.

Put differently, a person who observes someone do something wrong and doesn’t stop them is punished for not punishing. Not only do perpetrators undergo punishment, but those who do not punish the wrongdoer experience punishment as well.

Additionally, the knowledge that others are not getting away with bad behavior makes you less likely to do bad things. Or, put differently, if you know others aren't punished for bad behavior, you'll be more likely to behave badly too.

Thus, a meta-norm for third-party punishment emerges.

Both adults and children will engage in direct and third-party punishment to penalize people who are not fair. In fact, unaffected third-parties will punish even at a cost to themselves.

Studies have shown that most adults are willing to pay a cost to punish those who do not distribute goods evenly.

Perhaps more surprisingly, even children will punish others even at a cost to themselves. In one study, researchers designed a variation of the Dictator Game for children.

The original Dictator Game consists of two people. Researchers give one person some amount of money. And give a second person nothing. Researchers tell the participant given the money, called “the dictator,” that he has to offer some of the money to the second participant, even if the amount is zero.

The study for children consisted of five and six-year-olds. They decided whether to accept offers from an absent child on behalf of an absent recipient.

First, researchers gave participants 25 skittles. Next, children determined, on behalf of the recipient, whether to accept the offer of another child who divided candies between him/herself and the recipient.

The children could decide whether to accept the offer of the divider, or reject it. If they rejected it, the divider would not receive any candy.

Researchers also made it costly to the participants if they decided to reject the offer. In one condition, children had to give one of their candies if they rejected an offer from the divider. This meant that the divider would not receive any candy. Researchers found that children were willing to pay the cost of one skittle to punish a person for dividing candies unequally.

Even young toddlers punish. In one study of 19- to 23-month-olds, researchers presented the children with a puppet show. In the shows, one puppet does something mean or nice to another puppet.

In one scenario, a puppet has a ball and another puppet either steals the ball or gives it back. In another scenario, a puppet prevents another from opening a box or a puppet helps another open a box.

Next, researchers invited the toddlers to either give a treat to one of the puppets or take a treat from one of them to give to another puppet. They were more likely to give a treat to the prosocial puppet and take a treat from the antisocial puppet. In other words, even toddlers reward good behavior and punish bad behavior.

In another study, researchers showed preschoolers a puppet show consisting of an adult doll who decides whether to punish and two children dolls. The adult doll witnessed one of the child dolls attack the other child doll.

In one condition, the adult doll punished the attacker (consistent punishment). In another condition, the adult doll punished the victim (inconsistent punishment). Children were then invited to play with the dolls and asked to re-enact the story the way they preferred. Children could re-enact the same story, or could choose to tell a different one.

In the inconsistent punishment condition, where children observed the adult doll punish the victim who was attacked, children were more likely to decide that the adult doll should punish the attacker.

The researchers state that children’s preference to punish is so strong that it even overrides children’s tendency to mimic others, which is also quite strong.

They also claim it demonstrates that children’s understanding of right and wrong is not swayed by the actions of the adult doll or the adult portraying it. Even though they observed an adult doll punish a victim, children decided that it should punish the perpetrator.

The evolutionary logic underlying why people punish is clear. And the conditions under which both children and adults will punish is becoming clearer. While most of us try to do the right thing, sometimes it helps to know others are around to keep us in check.

Follow Rob on Twitter at @robkhenderson.

More from Rob Henderson
More from Psychology Today
More from Rob Henderson
More from Psychology Today