STUDY: We're More Likely To Harshly Punish Others When Our Friends Are Threatened

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A US study which used a game to measure crime and punishment has found that people who are treated unfairly would rather accept and live with the treatment or seek compensation rather than punish the perpetrator.

However, when handing out judgement for crimes of unfair treatment toward others, people often hand out the harshest punishment possible.

The researchers says this result has implications for the current treatment of criminals in Western legal systems.

In society, fairness acts as a standard for behaviour which promotes social efficiency and cooperation.

Previous studies of fairness have been carried out by presenting participants with two options when placed in unfair situations: engage in punishing behaviour or do nothing at all.

However, this experimental setup may not reflect everyday life situations.

Elizabeth Phelps of New York University and colleagues developed an economic game which allowed participants to choose from a range of punishing and compensatory options when they felt they had been treated unfairly by others.

The authors found that when alternative options for dealing with unfair situations were available those who were treated unfairly opted for acceptance or compensation rather than punishing the unfair participant.

However, if participants were making decisions on behalf of someone else who had been treated unfairly, they would often opt for the harshest economic punishment possible.

The results of the study are published in the journal Nature Communications.

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