Paper 'It's Not About the Money. It's About Sending a Message!': Unpacking the Components of Revenge
The two most prevalent theories of why people punish others—retribution and deterrence—focus exclusively on outcomes: the objective material welfare and the subjective well-being of the offender and the punisher. However, many if not most acts of revenge seem to be oriented not so much toward producing specific material outcomes or suffering for the perceived wrongdoer, but rather seem designed to send a message—to change the perpetrator's beliefs and/or mindset. Across three studies, including an observational study featuring real-world revenge stories and a high-powered pre-registered experiment involving a stylized workplace interaction, we examine whether belief-based preferences—caring directly about what offenders believe—play a crucial role in punishment decisions. Results from the studies not only demonstrate a direct causal link between belief-based motives and actual punishment decisions but show that these motives can be even stronger than the desire for retribution. In fact, we find very little evidence for purely retributive preferences (to inflict suffering on transgressors), and show that a substantial fraction of subjects are willing to compromise on distributive justice (to restore a fair allocation of wealth) to make sure that the offender understands the circumstances of punishment. These effects are robust to a variety of controls (e.g., demographics, anger, suspicion), and we also demonstrate that the preference for affecting offenders' beliefs cannot be explained by deterrence motives only (to make transgressors behave better in the future). We conclude by highlighting the practical implications of belief-based motives for organizations and justice systems.
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