The Offensive Nature of Cheap Crime

Jean Valjean’s lengthy prison term for stealing a loaf of bread may be the most well-known (albeit fictional) example of a punishment that didn’t fit the crime, but in the real world things like mandatory minimums have forced similar ordeals on too many people.

While there are numerous legal and political issues that have helped engender scenarios where crimes with small payoffs — for example, selling a small amount of crack — have exhobitantly large punishments, there may also be a psychological explanation. A new study led by Wenwen Xie highlights one way our attributions about the cause of wrongdoing can lead a person to be viewed more negatively when their crime leads to small payoff rather than a large payoff.

Xie’s initial experiment mirrored the procedure in Leon Festinger’s famous cognitive dissonance study in which participants were paid a small or large amount of money to convince somebody that a boring task was interesting. While Festinger was concerned with how the money would change the liar’s perception of the task (he found that lying for a small amount of money made participants later rate the task as less boring), Xie wanted to know how the money would change somebody else’s perception of the liar.

In Xie’s experiment, after participants observed a confederate get paid for lying about the task’s unpleasantness, some participants were offered a handshake by the confederate, while some were asked by the experimenter to count the money. Participants were then asked to wash their hands in order to operate equipment for an unrelated task. Unbeknownst to the participants, another experimenter who was unaware of the aim of the study timed how long the participants spent washing their hands. Previous stuides have shown that feelings of immorality can be transferred through contact, and that this perceived immorality can be measured by how long people spend cleansing themselves. Thus, the amount of time participants spent washing their hands offered a measure of their moral judgments regarding the liar (in the handshake condition) or the money (in the money counting condition.)

As expected, when the liar was paid a small amount of money, participants spent more time washing their hands when they shook the liar’s hand compared to when they counted the money. Alternatively, when the liar was paid a large amount of money, participants spent more time washing their hands when they counted the money compared to when they shook the liar’s hand. The researchers concluded that when the liar was dishonest for a small amount of money, participants blamed the liar for the immorality, and thus washed for longer after touching the liar’s hand. However, when the liar was dishonest for a large amount of money, participants blamed the money for inducing the immorality, and thus washed longer after touching the money.

In a follow up experiment participants saw photos of somebody pushing over another person in order to pick up a large or small amount of money. After viewing the photos participants handled either a photo of a hand reaching for the money or a photo of just the money. Once again, participants judged people more hashly when they violated a norm for small amounts of money. Specifically, they spent more time washing their hands after handling photos of the hand reaching for a small amount of money compared to photos of the hand reching for a large amount of money. The implication is that when people do something bad for a small payoff, the immorality is more likely to be attributed to something internal, such as their character, but when they do it for a large payoff, the immorality is more likely to be attributed to something external, such as the temptation of money.

If you think about it, the findings make perfect sense. If somebody frequently betrays others willy nilly for meaningless payoffs, they pose a much bigger threat and are likely a “worse” person than somebody who will only resort to betrayal for a major payoff. So it’s reasonable that we would have a darker view of the character of people who seemingly have a lower threshold for breaking norms.

The problem is that these tendencies have the potential to create inequalities in criminal justice systems. The findings suggest that some people may judge somebody who makes a small-time drug deal more harshly than somebody who makes a large drug deal. Similarly, when a bond trader lies in order to steal millions of dollars they may be judged as less morally corrupt than somebody who lies to grift a stranger out of a few hundred dollars.

In reality, such “small” crimes are often being committed for larger relative payoffs. A corner drug dealer or petty thief is probably stealing to afford basic neccesities, while a white collar crook is stealing so he can have another vacation home. In that sense the “value” of the payoff to the criminals is higher in the petty crime scenario.

Unfortunately, many in society are unlikely to see it this way. And so the seemingly small payday earned by the drug dealer on the corner can make him seem like somebody who is inherently a criminal, while the enormous payday earned by the crooked banker can make him seem like an ok guy who was pulled in by the allure of unspeakable wealth.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)

Xie, W., Yu, B., Zhou, X., Sedikides, C., & Vohs, K. (2013). Money, Moral Transgressions, and Blame Journal of Consumer Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2013.12.002


Sexual Abuse Is Terrible

Not that there are a whole lot of people on the fence about the issue, but a new study led by Selby Conrad helps illustrate the severe negative long-term effects that sexual abuse can have on females, and in particular females who may already be at-risk for other reasons.

Young female offenders represent a growing number of young offenders. Studies have shown that youth in the juvenile justice system, particularly young females, report higher rates of lifetime sexual abuse than their nonoffending peers. The aim of this study was to examine gender differences in risk factors for recidivism, including a history of sexual abuse, among a juvenile court clinic sample. Findings suggest that, even after accounting for previously identified risk factors for recidivism such as prior legal involvement and conduct problems, a history of sexual abuse is the most salient predictor of recidivism for young female offenders, but not for males. The development of gender-responsive interventions to reduce juvenile recidivism and continued legal involvement into adulthood may be warranted.

The Problem of Self-Worth Risk Aversion

The lack of preventative healthcare consumption in America seems absurd. Going to the doctor when you’re relatively healthy could save your life, but a suboptimal number of  people do it.

However, when viewed another way our avoidance of routine doctor visits makes sense. The default position is for people to assume they are healthy, and so there is little to gain when a doctor confirms that belief. On they other hand, by going to the doctor you stand to lose a lot. Why risk ruining your happy life with the possibility of really bad news?

A new study by Jennifer Howell and James Shepperd finds that self-affirmation may be one solution to this problem. When Howell and Shepperd gave subjects an exercise that made them see themselves in a more positive light, subjects were more likely to choose to see information about their risk of disease. By raising a subject’s self-worth, the researchers made them more open to doing something that could lower self-worth.

Receiving health information is just one of many situations people avoid because they fear changes to self-worth.  The need to maintain self-worth plays a big role in why people are hesitant to change their minds, even when facts contradict their current beliefs. Admitting something you believed is wrong leads to the acknowledgment that you are not as smart as you thought you were. Imagine how you would feel if it suddenly became clear you were 10% less smart than you think you are. It makes sense to not let that happen. Unfortunately, this messes with the country’s public policy because it makes people of all ideologies slow to admit they are wrong. The need to maintain self-worth is one reason people refuse to believe that climate change is real or that charter schools won’t destroy public education.

Our desire to maintain self-worth also messes with our personal lives. People interact with the opposite sex or quit their jobs at suboptimal levels because the outcome of a sexual advance or foray into the job market can have relatively large effects on self-worth. People also refuse to take necessary business risks because of threats to self-worth, something Seth Godin calls the influence of our “lizard brain.”

Although self-affirmation tends to be an effective solution to these problems — see David Sherman and Geoff Cohen for a good summary (pdf) — the challenge is finding ways to authentically boost self-affirmation during big decisions or key evaluation periods. An app that yells out “you are awesome” every few hours probably won’t cut it — we need to build authentic self-affirmation into decision processes.
Howell, J., & Shepperd, J. (2012). Reducing Information Avoidance Through Affirmation Psychological Science, 23 (2), 141-145 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611424164

Sherman, D., & Cohen, G. (2006). The Psychology of Self‐defense: Self‐Affirmation Theory Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 183-242 DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2601(06)38004-5