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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2014 Dec;143(6):2279-86. doi: 10.1037/xge0000018. Epub 2014 Oct 6.

The value of vengeance and the demand for deterrence.

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Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research, Department of Economics, University of Zurich.


Humans will incur costs to punish others who violate social norms. Theories of justice highlight 2 motives for punishment: a forward-looking deterrence of future norm violations and a backward-looking retributive desire to harm. Previous studies of costly punishment have not isolated how much people are willing to pay for retribution alone, because typically punishment both inflicts damage (satisfying the retributive motive) and communicates a norm violation (satisfying the deterrence motive). Here, we isolated retributive motives by examining how much people will invest in punishment when the punished individual will never learn about the punishment. Such "hidden" punishment cannot deter future norm violations but was nevertheless frequently used by both 2nd-party victims and 3rd-party observers of norm violations, indicating that retributive motives drive punishment decisions independently from deterrence goals. While self-reports of deterrence motives correlated with deterrence-related punishment behavior, self-reports of retributive motives did not correlate with retributive punishment behavior. Our findings reveal a preference for pure retribution that can lead to punishment without any social benefits.

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