The Devil you Know: The Effects of Identifiability on Punishment

Publication Date:
Jan 2005
Project Programs:
Behavioral Economics

Prior research has confirmed Thomas Schelling’s observation that people are more sympathetic and hence generous toward specific identified victims than toward "statistical" victims who are yet to be identified. In the study presented in this article we demonstrate an equivalent effect for punitiveness. We find that people are more punitive toward identified wrongdoers than toward equivalent, but unidentified, wrongdoers, even when identifying the wrongdoer conveys no meaningful information about him or her. To account for the effect of identifiability on both generosity and punitiveness, we propose that affective reactions of any type are stronger toward an identified than toward an unidentified target. Consistent with such an account, the effect of identifiability on punishing behavior was mediated by self-reported anger.

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