What motivates direct and indirect punishment? Extending the ‘intuitive retributivism’ hypothesis
Catherine Molho, Mathias Twardawski, & Lei Fan
In human societies, moral offenses are often met with punishment. Punishers may be motivated by retribution—i.e., wanting to repay the harm done—and/or general deterrence—i.e., wanting to prevent onlookers from committing similar offenses in the future. Punishment motivated by retribution is tailored to the severity of offenses, with more severe offenses deserving stricter punishments. Instead, punishment motivated by general deterrence is tailored to different factors, such as the observability of punishment, with widely observed penalties more effectively deterring future offenses. Here, we aimed to replicate and extend a seminal study by Carlsmith, Darley, and Robinson (2002) by testing the role that offense severity and punishment observability play in motivating direct punishment (via physical or verbal confrontation) versus indirect punishment (via gossip and ostracism). We further explored how the severity of offenses and the observability of punishment affect experiences of anger and disgust. We conducted an online experiment, where participants (N = 308; 61.8% male; M age = 47.5 years) read vignettes describing offenses with varying severity (high versus low) and punishment observability (high versus low). We then assessed their punishment tendencies (overall, direct, and indirect), their endorsement of retribution and deterrence motives, and their emotional responses (via facial arrays and lexical terms). Our findings provide support for intuitive retributivism accounts. Manipulating retribution-relevant information consistently influenced punishment: participants reported stronger overall, direct, and indirect punishment tendencies when offense severity was high (versus low). In contrast, manipulating deterrence-relevant information did not influence punishment. Consistent with prior research, self-reported deterrence (but not retribution) motives positively related to overall, direct, and indirect punishment tendencies. Mirroring these findings, participants expressed stronger negative emotions when offenses were high in severity; endorsement of disgust facial expressions also increased with punishment observability. Yet, only self-reported deterrence motives positively related to anger and disgust.