contact ME

You can use the form on the right to get in touch.


123 Street Avenue, City Town, 99999

(123) 555-6789


You can set your address, phone number, email and site description in the settings tab.
Link to read me page with more information.

Reflexive Intergroup Bias


Reflexive Intergroup Bias in Third-Party Punishment

In this line of work, we were interested in a phenomenon known as third-party punishment. Third-party punishment is the act punishing a wrongdoer, even if that person's actions haven't affected you directly. 

Third-party punishment is an interesting phenomenon because it's unique to humans. Even chimpanzees, our closest relative, are unwilling to intervene against a wrongdoer if his or her actions don't affect the self directly. 

Furthermore, third-party punishment is important in communities because it helps uphold social norms. For instance, imagine a group of fishermen all fishing from the same bay. If they all fish their fair share, the fish stock will be able to replenish itself and they can continue fishing as long as they please. But if someone, known as a "defector," takes more than his fair share, then the cooperative circle is broken. The fish may become depleted, and everyone loses. 

However, if fishermen can get together and punish the defector, then he may stop taking more than his fair share. The balance is restored. 

For this reason, scientists believe that third-party punishment may have played a critical role in sustaining the kinds of long-term human cooperation that allowed us to achieve our greatest cultural and technological advancements. 

Now, in this research, what we were interested in is how group membership affect's people's willingness to enact third-party punishment. Because groups have served as a marker for human cooperation for millennia, what me and my collaborators hypothesized was that people's willingness to punish would vary depending on whether they were of the same or a different group as the wrongdoer. 

But we weren't sure exactly how it would vary. We had two hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: People would punish in-group members more harshly than out-group members. 

Hypothesis 2: People would punish in-group members more leniently than out-group members. 

We weren't sure which hypothesis would be true. On the one hand, it seems that people should punish in-group members more since, as we saw in the fisherman example, these are the people who it is most important act fairly, since if they cheat, it has the most impact on me. On the other hand, research has shown that people dislike out-group members more than in-group. So they may be more inclined to punish them more severely.

So we set out to test whether people would punish in-group or out-group wrongdoers more harshly. 

To test this question, we devised an online game. In the game, people made a series of turns in which they exchanged money with two other players. At one point in the game, people were led to believe that they had just witnessed one of the other players steal almost all of the third player's money. They then had the opportunity to punish this player by confiscating some or all of his or her money and removing it from the game. 

Screenshot of the punishment phase of Experiment 3. 

Screenshot of the punishment phase of Experiment 3. 

To test the effects of group membership on punishment, we manipulated people's relationship to the "perpetrator" by making him or her think that they were fans of the same or a different sports team as them. In one experiment, we used baseball teams; in another, we used NFL teams. In yet another, we used country of citizenship. 

We then tested whether, when people shared a group identity with the person they were punishing, they were more lenient or more harsh. 

The results of the experiments were interesting. As it turned out, group membership actually had very little effect on people's punishment decisions. No matter whether the the perpetrator was in the same or a different group as the punisher, people administered equal amounts of punishment. 

But there is another side to this story. Because, while people have the tendency to treat each other fairly when they have the opportunity to deliberate on their decision, a different picture might emerge when they are distracted or in a hurry. 

To test this question, we subjected participants to "cognitive load." Cognitive load is a psychologist's term meaning distraction. Essentially, what it does is it occupies the part of the mind that has full control over your behavior, allowing your more reflexive tendencies to emerge. 

Cognitive load

Cognitive load

To manipulate cognitive load, we asked half of participants to retain a seven-digit alphanumeric string (7FG%45$) in working memory. Try it yourself--not so easy!

While participants were distracted in this way, we then asked them to enact their punishment decision. And here, a very different picture emerged. Take a look at the graph below. What you'll see is three sets of graphs, A, B, and C. These correspond to the three experiments we ran to test our hypothesis. And what you'll notice is that, on the left side of each panel, the bars are far apart. (This is even true for the lines in Panel A. In this experiment, participants responded either faster or slower--another measure of reflexive judgment.) This shows that the amount people punished in-group and out-group members was very different when they were under high cognitive load. Not only that: people consistently punish out-group members more harshly than in-group members. 

By contrast, on the right side, the bars are essentially even. This shows that people were basically egalitarian when they could deliberate on their decision. 

Reflexive intergroup bias in third-party punishment. Each panel represents an experiment. Across experiments, when people were making decisions in a hurry (A) or under cognitive load (B and C), they intergroup bias in punishment.  

Reflexive intergroup bias in third-party punishment. Each panel represents an experiment. Across experiments, when people were making decisions in a hurry (A) or under cognitive load (B and C), they intergroup bias in punishment.  

Overall, this research shows what we call "Reflexive Intergroup Bias in Third-Party Punishment." Essentially, what this means is that when people are punishing reflexively, they punish out-group members worse than in-group. This supports Hypothesis 2. 

This has implications for the way we think about groups and implicit bias. Recently there has been a lot of talk about implicit bias in the news. For instance, it is possible that well-known instance of disproportionate punishment of black people by the police is driven by implicit bias. 

This research shows that implicit bias is not about racism per se. Rather, such bias may simply be about group membership. We're programmed to think differently about people of different groups, and race may just be a manifestation of this.

On the other hand, this research shows that we may be able to overcome these biased instinct. When we have the change to think things through, our better, nobler side can emerge.