Rip-off victims prefer compensation to retribution

But those acting on others’ behalf want a punishment that fits the crime


JUSTICE REPAID  People value compensation over punishment after being personally wronged but endorse retribution when acting on behalf of others cheated in the same way.

RabidSquirrel/Pixabay (CC0 1.0)

People who have been bilked or cheated view justice through a personal lens, valuing compensation over vengeance, a new study suggests.

Many scam victims would rather be repaid for their losses than see perpetrators punished, say psychologist Oriel FeldmanHall of New York University and her colleagues. Only when acting on behalf of others who have been bamboozled did people in an experimental game prefer punishment over compensation, the researchers report October 28 in Nature Communications.

“When given different options to restore justice, victims in our study chose to be compensated rather than to punish a transgressor,” FeldmanHall says.

Differing perspectives on compensation versus punishment raise concerns about whether judges and juries agree with plaintiffs in criminal cases on how to restore justice.

In the experimental game, participants were especially quick to dispense punishment to someone who they had seen shortchange another player when splitting up a sum of money. Volunteers took slightly longer to respond after personally getting shortchanged, usually opting for compensation. These results run counter to a popular assumption that third parties deliberate more than victims do about how to redress a crime, FeldmanHall says.

“Studying restorative justice is worthwhile, especially given its importance in many small-scale societies,” comments anthropologist Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (SN Online: 9/27/12).

The researchers devised a variation of the ultimatum game, in which one of two players proposes how to split a sum of money. If the second player agrees, shares are pocketed. If the second player dissents, no one gets a cent. In previous research, players have often rejected lopsidedly unfair offers.

FeldmanHall’s group studied 112 randomly paired college students. One player proposed a division of $10 to another, who had five ways to respond to unfair offers. The second player could accept the deal, reduce the proposer’s payout to match what was offered, split the money evenly, get compensated by raising the payout to match that of the proposer or stick it to the first player by reversing the proposed split and taking the larger amount.

Each duo played 10 rounds of the game, with a different pair of options in each round. By the end, the second player had been given an opportunity to use all five options.

Volunteers increasingly favored compensation as offers became more unfair. When given the chance, they chose compensation 91 percent of the time for offers of $1 from a $10 pot. (In other words, both players collected $9.) Players chose to reverse a proposed $9:$1 split 78 percent of the time when given the chance.

Similar results emerged among 261 individuals recruited from an online pool of participants. But when volunteers observed $9:$1 offers, they punished the proposer by reversing the split 55 percent of the time when given that option, versus 43 percent of the time as recipients of the unfair offer.

Another 540 online recruits participated in separate games. As proposals got more lopsided, individuals increasingly opted for compensation when personally shortchanged and for a reversed payout when acting on another’s behalf.

For now, the new findings apply only to people from Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies, Henrich says. People in some traditional societies always accept, rather than punish or reject, a partner’s unfair offer in standard ultimatum games, suggesting that compensation concerns aren’t universal (SN: 2/16/02, p. 104).

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Psychology