Monday, April 5, 2010

Going by their spectacular biological evolution, humans more or less are pattern-seeking primates. More so, when it comes to coming to terms with what our lives have turned out to be. Suppose I study in an institution where am bullied for wearing plain clothes and no shoes; and my seniors cajole me for my attire. Those who come to know about this bullying may assume that I deserve that treatment because my choice of attire merits the pushing around.

Simply put, you get what you get because you strongly deserve it. This is called the Just World Hypothesis. Another prominent example is a skimpily dressed woman could be raped because she deserved that consequence; this even nullifies the trauma she went through. In such a case in US, the rapist was acquitted with the jury stating: “We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed”.

This brings into focus the “intuitive, moral” judgement as opposed to the “reasoned” type that is expected of retributive justice.

Broadly, I would like to talk about punishment and recent psychological research on it. Punishment, needless to say, deters wrongdoing – at least in principle. People often ignore deterrence in making decisions about punishment or penalties.

In a prominent research study, two researchers gave a questionnaire to four groups: retired judges, law students, other students and other groups. This questionnaire posed an imaginary situation: the legal system in USA becomes similar to that in New Zealand. In such a system, penalties on injurers and compensation for victims are decided separately.

Now to what the case is. A woman was given a pill for a life-threatening disease and she dies. But the disease is far more likely than the pill to kill her and the drug-maker was clearly not negligent.

Then, the researchers presented two versions of this case.

Version 1:
“The drug-maker knew how to make an even safer pill but had decided against producing it because the drug-maker was not sure that the safer pill would be profitable. If the drug-maker were to stop making the pill that the woman took, it would make the safer pill.”

Version 2:
“If the drug-maker were to stop making the pill that the woman took, it would cease making pills altogether.”

Surprisingly, most respondents from the four groups, including judges, thought that the penalty should depend on the harm done, not on its effect on anyone’s future behavior. For example, some subjects argued, “We are dealing with solely what happened to the woman.” “The damage was already done to that woman.” “It should have to pay damages if it was at fault.” “[The drug-maker] should pay for its previous actions on account of those actions.”

Consider another experiment done by the social psychologist, Melvin Lerner. Lerner staged an experiment in which some 20 odd subjects were shown on a TV a frightened girl entering a lab, with electrodes on her body and scalp. She is asked some questions and for every wrong answer, she is given a shock. She screams and wriggles in pain.

But the subjects do not know one thing: this a fake experiment – the girl is in fact Lerner’s own student and she’s acting the shocks out.

Now, here the experiment turns more interesting.

With the subjects seeing the girl scream in pain, one group (say 10) were told that they can choose between letting the girl undergo more pain or just transfer her into another setting, where even wrong answers are positively reinforced. So, the girl received for instance a pat on the back if she answered incorrectly, only to encourage here. Undoubtedly, many among this 10-member group preferred the new setting, to end the torture. Many said they thought her as an innocent victim who did not deserve to be shocked and tortured in this way – some even said she’s a good person.

Then, how about the remaining 10 members? This group wasn’t given a choice but were forced to see the girl in the same torturous setting. But they were told different stories about her. Some were told that she was being paid for participating in the experiment (and very well know that the pain) (call this Group 1); others were told that she gets paid nothing (call this Group 2). Few others were told she is voluntarily submitting herself to a second round of torture because any member from this group will be picked up instead of her (call this Group 3).

So, did these stories affect the way the girl’s pain was perceived? It seems they did. Group 1 started disliking the girl depending on how much money she received as compensation: the less money she got, the more they disliked her. This was based on their premise that it was her own fault. Because she did not listen to the questions properly or did not learn from her past wrong answers (for which she was shocked), the members said she deserved the shock. Group 3 thought that though the girl sacrificed herself for the sake of the group, her pain was proof of her guilt.

Lerner concludes that "the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character."

These two experiments illustrate the irony of the Just World Hypothesis: “how our faith in justice leads directly to injustice.” It’s not that bad people always have to deal with bad things only. Good people often end up in a bad state, in spite of many perceiving the world to be fair. This assumption of fairness makes many people judge that good people are being mistreated because there’s something wrong about them. But the fact of the matter is the world isn't fair.

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