Field of Science

The Punishment Paradox

Why do attempted murderers get less jail time than murderers? Why is a drunken driver who hits a tree punished less than one who hits a person? If our laws are set up to correct behavior, why do they punish according to the outcome of an action rather than the intention?

Questions like these were raised in a talk I heard today by Fiery Cushman who, in addition to having an awesome name, has done some fascinating research on this subject.

It turns out the phenomenon of punishing by outcomes rather than intentions is reflected not just in our legal system, but in our individual behavior. In a variety of experiments, (see his publications page for details) Cushman found that people's decisions to reward and punish, even amoung children as young as five, are based on the result of someone's actions rather than on what the person was thinking.

Interestingly, when asked if they want to be friends with a person, or whether that person is "good," intentionality becomes much more important. Thus, if you throw a rock at me and miss, I'll think you're a jerk, but I won't chase you down the way I would if you'd hit me. (Hah, I'm actually a wimp. I'd go home and cry. But you get the point.)

This talk being part of an evolutionary dynamics class, Cushman turned to the question of how this punishment instinct might have evolved, and why it evolved so differently from moral judgments.

The answers to these questions are still cloudy, but they may have to do with our interactions with the natural (non-human) environment. Consequences in the natural world are based on outcomes: If you climb a dangerous cliff but don't fall, you aren't punished, even though it was still a bad idea. So from these non-social interactions, we're "used" to being punished based on outcomes; in evolutionary terms, we've adapted to it. And according to some of Cushman's experiments, we learn better from outcome-based punishment, because it's what we expect. So punishment evolved to fit our already-established learning patterns. I think. If you're having trouble following this, it's tricky stuff. I can barely follow it myself.