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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Seedcorn Grant Report by Stefanie Hechler and Ann-Cristin Posten

10.12.2022, by Media Account in grant report

Third-Party Punishment: A Communicative Act with Victims

Imagine a colleague of yours is invalidated in front of others - let us say somebody rudely criticizes her work and insults her person. In the first moment everyone is so stunned that nobody counters, and the moment passes. How do you feel? And how do you imagine your colleague feels?

Such instances of interpersonal offenses often leave victims’ feeling vulnerable. They experience a loss of status, power, self-respect, and agency (Baumeister et al., 1994; Shnabel & Nadler, 2015), and consequently are in need of empowerment. Observing third parties often feel the urge to step in and punish on behalf of victims, especially when they feel close to them (see Pfattheicher et al., 2019 for an overview). Thereby they aim at signaling their alliance with the victims (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2013) and that they care for their wellbeing (Bernhard et al., 2006). But could third-party punishment support victims in regaining their sense of power? In contrast, some scholars suggested that third-party punishment may even leave victims more vulnerable, offering dependency-oriented help (Nadler, 2015) that enforces the impression that they cannot defend themselves (Darley & Pittman, 2003). Accordingly, victims have found to regain power when they personally punish their offenders (Strelan et al., 2020), and when they are granted voice in the punishment process (Strelan et al., 2017). However, third-party interventions, such as sending empowering messages, do not empower victims (Shnabel et al., 2014; Harth & Shnabel, 2015).

Punishment has recently been stressed to be a communicative act rather than mere behavioral conditioning of offenders (e.g., McGeer & Funk, 2017; Cushman et al., 2019). As such, punishers use punishment to communicate to offenders that they see their behavior as wrong and aim at teaching them better (Sarin et al., 2021). Likewise, punishment sends a signal to others, which, for example, addresses symbolic implications of the offense, such as threats to the value consensus and power/status relations (Wenzel et al., 2008). But could punishment communicate with victims so that they regain their sense of power?

Based on the group-shift model of control (Fritsche, 2022) and justice-restoration theory (Wenzel et al., 2008), we argue that third-party punishment can be empowering to victims, especially when it is executed by the victim’s ingroup. An interpersonal offense, such as insulting others in the workplace, does not only include harm to the victim, but often (or hopefully) also violates norms of decent conduct within the group of colleagues. Punishment by authorities, who act in the name of the group, can effectively re-validate such group norms (Feinberg, 1965; Okimoto & Wenzel, 2009). Effective norms, in turn, like ‘colleagues must not be rude to each other’, protect group members from being victimized (Frazier et al., 2017). What is more, the punishment also affirms that the victim is a valued member of the group whose norms protect them (Okimoto & Wenzel, 2011). In a nutshell, we suggest that experiencing the ingroup’s efficacy in maintaining their norms through punishment while having their group membership status re-affirmed restores victims’ sense of power.

With the support of the EASP seedcorn grant, we conducted three preregistered studies (overall N = 338 + 140 + 420) to test this assumption. Following up on two previous vignette studies, participants in the current study engaged in group tasks for bonus payments. One part of the group task was playing a deception game (or an imagined deception game, Study 3; Gneezy, 2005) with another group member, for which group members were paired. All participants were in the role of an advisee, depending on the advice of another group-member. For all participants, the advising group member deceived them and thereby nullifying the participant’s bonus and maximizing their personal bonus. When being offered the opportunity to punish the advisor who was dishonest to participants, either one person or all group members took the opportunity to punish them. In Study 1, as in the previous studies, perceived value consensus and group membership status positively correlated with victim’s empowerment. However, punishment by all group members was not significantly more empowering to victims than punishment by only one person. In Study 2, we tried to increase relevance of the group by telling participants that their group membership was based on similarity in an initial test for personal preferences. Moreover, we implemented costly punishment to increase the value and potentially the communicative power of punishment. Results were similar to those of Study 1. In Study 3, where we tried to make group membership even more meaningful, participants imagined to be part of a personalized team of colleagues from work with members (including the participant) having individual names. Again, they played the deception game and afterwards either only one team member punished, all of them punished, or none of them. Further, we added two more conditions, in which the punisher(s) did not only engage in costly punishment of the deceptive advisor, but also communicated that they did so because they behaved unfair towards the participant. Adding these conditions allowed us to observe whether the explicit message contributes to victim empowerment, or whether mere punishment suffices. Results show that punishment by all group members was more empowering than punishment by only one person or no punishment. Punishment with explicit message did not empower victims over and above mere punishment. A sequential mediation model showed that – as expected – the effect of punishment by all versus one on empowerment was mediated via perceived value consensus and victim group membership status.

The results suggest that third-party punishment by a meaningful and personalized group (in contrast to one person) communicates that the group shares common values, and that the victim is a valued group member - and can thereby empower victims. This effect, however, did not emerge when the group consisted of anonymous other study participants. In future studies we would like to address these boundary conditions, examining the role of ingroup identification, group characteristics (e.g., entitativity), and representativeness of the punishers. We presented the results for the first time at the 52nd Congress of the German Psychological Society in Hildesheim in September 2022. We will publish the research in an international scientific journal as soon as we have learned more about boundary conditions (that might explain differences in results between Studies 1-2 and Study 3). The current project laid the foundation for successful and lasting future collaboration on a topical issue with multiple societal implications on how to counter anti-normative behavior to support potential victims in their needs. The research bridges interpersonal and intragroup processes to give insights into how a group, or its representatives, can support victims of interpersonal offenses regain their sense of power.

Stefanie Hechler and Ann-Cristin Posten

University of Limerick