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Conscious Cogn. 2017 May;51:193-211. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2017.03.010. Epub 2017 Apr 5.

Making punishment palatable: Belief in free will alleviates punitive distress.

Author information

1
Florida State University, Department of Psychology, 1107 West Call Street, Tallahassee, FL 32306-4301, USA; University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, Department of Psychology, Park Hall Room 204, Buffalo, NY 14260-4110, USA; University of California, Irvine, Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, 4201 Social and Behavioral Sciences Gateway, Irvine, CA 92697-7085, USA. Electronic address: cclark3@fsu.edu.
2
Florida State University, Department of Psychology, 1107 West Call Street, Tallahassee, FL 32306-4301, USA; The University of Queensland, School of Psychology, Sir Fred Schonell Drive, St Lucia, QLD 4072, Australia.
3
University of California, Irvine, Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, 4201 Social and Behavioral Sciences Gateway, Irvine, CA 92697-7085, USA.

Abstract

Punishing wrongdoers is beneficial for group functioning, but can harm individual well-being. Building on research demonstrating that punitive motives underlie free will beliefs, we propose that free will beliefs help justify punitive impulses, thus alleviating the associated distress. In Study 1, trait-level punitiveness predicted heightened levels of anxiety only for free will skeptics. Study 2 found that higher state-level incarceration rates predicted higher mental health issue rates, only in states with citizens relatively skeptical about free will. In Study 3, participants who punished an unfair partner experienced greater distress than non-punishers, only when their partner did not have free choice. Studies 4 and 5 confirmed experimentally that punitive desires led to greater anxiety only when free will beliefs were undermined by an anti-free will argument. These results suggest that believing in free will permits holding immoral actors morally responsible, thus justifying punishment with diminished negative psychological consequences for punishers.

KEYWORDS:

Anxiety; Free will; Morality; Motivated reasoning; Punishment

PMID:
28388484
DOI:
10.1016/j.concog.2017.03.010
[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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