Earlier this year I decided to undertake an experiment on punishment and blameworthiness. I set up an online survey and asked my Facebook friends and people on Twitter to fill it out. There were 5 scenarios. In each one someone called John did something wrong and people were asked to say how blameworthy John was from 0 (no blame) to 9 (completely to blame). I also asked them to say how much punishment he deserved from 0 (none) to 9 (life in prison or the death penalty).
Here are the results.
Q1. John is at a football game when he sees another fan, called Steve, wearing a scarf supporting the opposing team. John tells Steve to take the scarf off. Steve refuses and John hits him in the face.
The results are shown above in a bubble diagram. The larger the circle the more people gave that answer. There’s a spread of answers but most people score John highly for blameworthiness whilst the level of punishment people believe he deserves varies hugely in the results.
Q2. John and Steve are hunting in the woods. Despite the fact that John has followed all safety rules his shotgun misfires, accidentally hitting Steve in the side. Steve dies before John can fetch help.
Many people viewed John as low to moderate in his blameworthiness and seemed to feel that the punishment he deserved was also low to moderate. There were, however, a few people who knew that shotgun etiquette means that you should never point your gun at someone. Their extra knowledge meant that they felt he was highly blameworthy and deserved a high level of punishment.
Q3. John drives a security van containing money. One day Steve kidnaps John’s daughter and threatens to kill her if John doesn’t give Steve the money. John gives Steve the money from his van and his daughter is returned safely.
This one is not as easy as the first two. Although John is guilty of theft he was under duress. This can be seen in the results where a number of people felt that he was not very blameworthy for his actions and shouldn’t be heavily punished. However, once again we can see a few outliers.
Q4. John planned to kill his mother for the inheritance. He dragged her to bed and lit her oxygen mask with his cigarette, hoping to make it look like an accident. His mother’s clothes caught fire and she burnt to death.
The majority of people find this an easy question to answer, with high blameworthiness and deserving high punishment.
Q5. John and Steve are friends who share a competitive streak. They frequently play tennis together. One day when they are playing Steve easily defeats John 2 games in a row. In frustration, John returns the ball particularly hard and it hits Steve in the eye.
There was general agreement that John deserved a low level of punishment but there was a wide range of opinion around how blameworthy John was.
So why did I ask all those questions? I wanted to partially recreate a study which was published last year and which I found really interesting. The study asked questions of the type which I have shown above and asked people to score the level of John’s blameworthiness and how harshly he should be punished from 0 to 9. In a rather cool twist they would get people to wear an electro-magnetic coil on their head before asking the questions. Sometimes they would turn it on and sometimes they wouldn’t. When it was turned on the activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was reduced.
They were able to compare the results from questions when the electro-magnetic coil was on to those when it was off. What they found was that reducing the activity in the brain had no impact on how individuals scored John’s blameworthiness, however, it did reduce the level to which they felt he should be punished.
This is a really interesting result to me. If a high level of activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex makes somebody want to punish others more severely then should we measure the activity in the brains of people who decide punishment levels for a living, such as judges? Also, would it explain some of the behaviour in the workplace when some people seem to want to punish others?
Knowing that our thoughts on how much someone deserves punishment can be affected by the level of activity in a particular area of our brain means that perhaps the desire to punish is not completely rational. Just knowing this gives us the option of stepping back from that desire to punish and ask ourselves whether there’s a better way to handle the situation. I see lots of punishment around in the workplace, from managers punishing people, to self-blame and ostracising someone on the team because they think differently. I see such behaviours in many work environments, including agile ones.
It’s a shame that I wasn’t able to reproduce the study completely, but I don’t think many people would have been willing to put magnetic coils on their heads whilst answering my online survey! I do however suggest that we think about installing the apparatus in the diagram below into offices across the land.