The Puzzle of Altruistic Punitiveness
Let’s suppose that that a jerk does something that, while not criminal, is extremely inconsiderate and mean to me. There is only a slim possibility that I will prevail in a civil suit. Oddly I pursue the civil suit anyway. Am I crazy, stupid, or justified? One thing’s for sure, I’m in good company. Real life and laboratory experimental evidence reveal this again and again: many individuals will seek to impose some cost on the jerk despite a significant cost to themselves.
Because classical deterrence theory depends on the notion that people are rational actors who maximize their selfish returns, the practice seems odd. This is, from a deterrence perspective, a puzzling case of altruistic punitiveness. I punish the jerk at my own expense, and the deterrent benefits generated by my costly punitive action accrue largely to others.
There are, of course, a number of possible explanations for this:
1. I’m not trying to maximize my return – I’m “irrational”.
2. I’m just bad at maximizing my return – I have “bounded rationality,” a polite term for faulty rationality or stupidity.
3. In addition to valuing money and tangible goods, I value social meaning – I am a “social meaning evaluator”.
Of the three, the latter two are best supported by the evidence we have of behavior and cognition in the population at large (clearly, though, in my case, the former is also well documented). There are numerous empirical studies indicating that individuals are error-prone when calculating their expected monetary returns. We also have many accounts of individuals who, when asked why they pursue costly law suits, say “to prove a point” or “to get justice” or provide some other answer that suggests they are evaluating something other than money that is of value to them.
Moreover, the puzzle of altruistic punitiveness is really just a specific instance of a much broader phenomenon. Individuals often engage in behaviors that appear to be irrational, but which turn out to be faulty attempts at achieve rational ends or near-perfect attempts at maximizing their “social meaning utility”.
Teasing apart the “bounded rationality” and “social meaning evaluator” explanations is quite difficult, but essential to sound public policy. If people are simply making costly errors, then we should try to discourage them and correct for those errors. But if they are maximizing some value other than wealth, things become far more complicated and the policy response much more difficult to gauge.
I’ll post more on this “teasing apart” problem in future entries. But in this post I just want to note that while our understanding of the second explanation – bounded rationality – is highly developed, our understanding of the third explanation is really still in its infancy. Over the course of the next month, I want to explore research into this third explanation, and would be delighted to hear of any existing or ongoing research that you know of in this area.
Notice, though, that the third explanation also removes the distinction between selfish and altruistic behavior, solving the puzzle — or better yet, making it disappear.
In my next post I’ll discuss why the most common approximation of the third explanation, retributivism, leaves me unsatisfied.