In order to study our inner motivations for punishing one another, researchers used a series of games that allowed players to cheat. Each version of the game differed slightly in the amount of money that players could steal from each other. What they found wasn’t unpredictable by any means but interesting nonetheless:
In the first two versions of the game, where the decision to cheat didn’t lead to that player ending up with more money than the other, the decision to inflict punishment wasn’t determined by whether or not the other player had cheated. When the cheater made out better than the potential punisher, as was the case in the third version, however, that player was motivated to dole out punishment.
The purpose of punishment, it would seem, is not to deter cheating, but rather to level the playing field. The subject’s actions demonstrated a belief in fairness, but not reciprocity, suggesting that the former may be the motive behind the desire to punish.
This study, to me at least, sheds more light on the way people interact within systems of power than the true motivations—emotional and pragmatic—behind unstructured punishment. In games it is easy to prevent, penalize, or keep peace. Outside the magic circle, though, justice is messy.
As children we were informed that the world isn’t fair. I wonder if our pursuit of punishment—particularly institutionalized punishment—is a vestige of some lost ideal, bittered and hardened over time.