What else can responsible leaders do to stop the cycle of retribution?
Ultimatum game experiments have shown that if responders are given an alternative channel for expressing their dissatisfaction with unfair offers, for example by sending a written message to the proposer, then they will send that message and accept the offer. They sent angry messages like “Thanks for nothing”, “Why do you have to be greedy?” - but they accepted the offer.
When people feel that destructive behavior is the only option they have to make their voices heard, they are going to take that option, even if it hurts them financially. But if they have alternative channels to express their displeasure, they may be able to act in a way that's consistent with their long-term economic interest and still feel satisfied.
That's fascinating. But don't we have more channels than ever before to express our dissatisfaction in public?
This is a puzzle that we have not yet solved. On the one hand, research has shown that giving people alternative channels to express their displeasure makes them less likely to punish. But on the other hand, research on aggression shows that “venting” makes people more likely to be aggressive in the future. If expressing outrage is rewarding, small acts of self-expression, for instance on Facebook or Twitter, might increase the likelihood of future expressions of outrage – perhaps via one’s vote.
What's next for your research?
I would like to test the hypothesis that punishment has an addictive quality. If it does, then perhaps we can learn from addiction research how to counter the punitive impulse.
Reporting by Sophie Hardach