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The Offensive Nature of Cheap Crime

2013 December 16
by Eric Horowitz

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)

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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

One Response leave one →
  1. Skwosh permalink
    December 16, 2013

    I would summarise your argument as follows:

    1. If the proles thought that “the punishment should be in proportion to the payoff” then surely they’d think that fraudulent bankers are more evil than petty thieves?

    2. Well, it turns out that research has revealed that the prole robot programme is not in fact “puishment should be in proportion to payoff” but is instead “punishment should be *inversely* proportional to payoff”.

    3. Mystery solved! The reason the proles think fraudulent bankers are less evil than petty thieves is because the proles are following this very same prole robot programme just like they did in the research.

    4. It’s too bad they don’t think hard enough about this though, because if they did they’d realise that the payoff for the banker is actually *smaller* (in relative terms) than the payoff for the petty thief – and if they fed that into their prole robot programme (“punishment should be *inversely* proportional to payoff”) then they’d come to the *correct* conclusion – that fraudulent bankers are more evil than petty thieves!

    OK.

    I hope I’m not misrepresenting your argument there too much.

    Anyhow, it occurs to me that there may be an even simpler explanation:

    Perhaps the proles instead believe that “punishment should be in proportion to payoff” and they *do* realise, as you do, that the payoff in the case of the petty thief is greater (in relative terms) than the payoff for the fraudulent banker – and that is why the proles think that the petty thief is more evil than the fraudulent banker?

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