The Benefit of the Doubt: Willful Ignorance and Altruistic Punishment

By Robert Stüber - Version in Deutsch

A majority of people are willing to punish others for violating certain social norms. The willingness to punish norm violations has been suggested as being a major enforcement mechanism of social norms, which, in turn, are seen not just as key drivers of cooperation between strangers, but also the existence of human societies more generally. However, the motives behind people’s willingness to altruistically punish are not fully explored: It is not clear why people engage in altruistic punishment. In a recent study, BCCP Doctoral Student Robert Stüber analyzes whether the willingness to punish norm violations is reduced when people can remain willfully ignorant about whether a norm violation has taken place.

In order to answer his research question, he conducted a laboratory experiment that modifies the workhorse design for studying altruistic punishment: One participant (called the “dictator”) divides a certain amount of money between himself and a passive “recipient.” The dictator can be selfish (and keep most of the money for himself), thereby violating a certain distributional norm, or he can be fair (and give a substantial part to the recipient). After the decision of the dictator, a third party is immediately informed about the dictator’s choice and then decides whether she wants to punish the dictator, which is costly and means that the dictator’s income is reduced, or not, such that the dictator’s income remains unchanged. In the new study, the researcher keeps all these elements constant, but the third parties are no longer immediately informed about the choice of the dictator, but can, without any costs, choose to reveal the choice by clicking on a button. Irrespective of whether a third party reveals the choice of the dictator, she can decide whether to punish the dictator.

The results show that more than one-third of the third parties willfully ignore the information about whether a norm violation has taken place. Because almost all of the ignorant third parties choose not to punish the dictator, the fraction of altruistically punished norm violations substantially decreases by 50% to about one-third.

In the second part of the study, the author shows that this willful ignorance is in line with the social norms that prevail with respect to altruistic punishment: Although it is socially appropriate to reveal the information about the choice of the dictator, if one remains ignorant, it is very socially inappropriate to punish. At the same time, it is considered to be okay to remain ignorant and not to punish.

These findings suggest that by remaining willfully ignorant, people can maintain a high self-image (because they “do not know” about the norm violation) and simultaneously avoid the costs of engaging in altruistic punishment. They act in line with the prevailing social norms in situations of initial ignorance. Hence, existing studies overstate the role of altruistic punishment because, in a more realistic scenario that allows to avoid learning about norm violations, a substantial fraction of norm violations remain unpunished. Beyond that, the results suggest that the willingness to punish norm violations is often driven by a desire to maintain a high self-image and to act in accordance with the prevailing social norms.

The study The Benefit of the Doubt: Willful Ignorance and Altruistic Punishment was recently published in Experimental Economics.