What would you do if you saw a stranger disregarding common rules of conduct in society like talking on a mobile phone during a movie or littering in public? Would you confront them? Call them out to deter them from doing it again? Or just let it slide?
Let’s tweak the question a bit: would your response depend on how serious or negligible the misconduct is?
There’s a popular theory in the field of behavioral social science that if human beings function so well together in modern societies it’s largely because we keep each other in check by handing out some kind of punishment when social norms are ignored. This disciplinary behaviour humans display toward strangers — separate from the laws and penalties imposed by governments and police — is called altruistic punishment. For such punishment to promote cooperative behavior, however, it must “fit the crime." Accordingly, in lab experiments, altruistic punishment has been shown to increase with the seriousness of the offense.
A new study published in Nature Communications, however, has shown the opposite is true in real life, that altruistic punishment from bystanders interested in upholding social order does not always measure up to the “crime".
Fear of retaliation
Field experiments conducted by researchers from NYU Abu Dhabi, University of Innsbruck, and University of Cologne found that most people are unwilling to increase altruistic punishment if the offense is more serious mainly because they fear some kind of retaliation if they speak up.
The research was carried out at two major train stations in Cologne, Germany. Actors violated a social norm by littering in front of unsuspecting subjects. Two variations were played out: one where a violator tossed an empty coffee cup to the ground (a lesser offense) and another where a violator littered a lunch bag full of trash (a greater offense). These variations played out hundreds of times in front of different subjects while researchers watched to see what they would do.