What We Mean When We Say "That's Not Fair"

The often-overlooked function of our justice system is its putative role. So how far are people willing to go to punish criminals? How many of your own resources would you sacrifice to punish a thief? 

What's the Latest Development?


What do we mean when we say something is unfair? And how far will we go to punish the wrongdoer? A pair of experimental psychologists sought to answer those questions by rigging a game in which a pair of individuals could steal money from each other. An important twist to the study was that retaliation (she stole from me so I'm going to steal back) cost the retaliator money in addition to what was lost to the thief. So the question became: Will the victim of a crime retaliate even though they will be financially worse off for doing so? 

What's the Big Idea?

What the researchers found is that the willingness of a person to sacrifice their resources in order that the thief be punished ultimately depended on the severity of the thief's crime. If the thief stole a small amount of money, such that the victim still had an equal amount of money or more money than the thief, only about 15% of victims were willing to sacrifice additional money in order to punish the thief. However, in cases where the thief stole a majority of the victim's money, making them better off than the victim, the propensity to retaliate rose to 40%. The study suggests we are especially offended by dishonest reversals of fortune. 

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