Research in Progress

“Fourth Party Punishment: When do people punish bystanders?” (with Lauren Kaufmann)

Recent events have suggested that humans sometimes place blame for a transgression on “bystanders,” i.e., those who observe a transgression but fail to punish the transgressor. This is apparent in, for example, the ousting of Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach, for failing to fire the assistant coach, who was an alleged child abuser. Despite this common observation, very little research has examined the extent to which people are willing to punish bystanders. In a series of five studies (N = 1,531), we find that people (1) people are willing to punish bystanders, but not as many people as are willing to punish the original transgressor; (2) however, conditional on wanting to punish, people were willing to engage in the same type and extent of punishment towards the bystander and transgressor; (3) though bystanders are not seen as less moral or less warm than witnesses who were unable to get involved, bystander behavior is seen as “less appropriate” and this drives the difference in punishment behavior; (4) people are more willing to punish bystanders who failed to help the victim than bystanders who failed to punish the transgressor — reflecting that society expects bystanders to help victims more than it expects bystanders to punish transgressors; and (5) offering an apology can reduce aggression towards a bystander. Next, we are exploring bystander punishment in the workplace with an autobiographic recall study with real employees to assess what moderates bystander disapproval in the real world. We will also be exploring what individual differences (e.g., guilt-proneness, self-monitoring, etc.) are associated with the drive to punish bystanders.

“Team Chemistry: Apologizing Beats Blaming on the Basketball Court” (with Russell Golman)

Apologizing to teammates for a mistake or blaming teammates for their mistakes superficially appear to be forms of cheap talk that theoretically should have no consequences, but responsibility exchange theory posits that these communications, which attribute responsibility for mistakes, impact the social image and self-image of both the communicator and the target of communication. As a result, these communications have implications for interpersonal relationships between team members, i.e., apologies and finger-pointing do have consequences.  In a pilot study of 31 games, we tested whether team performance correlates with whether team members apologize for their own mistakes or blame each other, using an original dataset of on-court communications during professional basketball games.  We found that conditional on a mistake occurring and being communicated about, the probability that the communication takes the form of an apology (a blame) increases (decreases) with the performance of the team across the season.  We are in the process of applying for funding to expand our dataset.

“The Effect of Failing to Thank and Failing to Apologize in Relationships” (with George Loewenstein)

In order to explore the impacts of failing to thank and failing to apologize in more naturalistic settings, we conducted two autobiographical recall studies. In the “Originator” study (N = 206), participants recalled a situation in which (1) they did something that positively impacted another person and they were thanked, or (2) were not thanked, or (3) they did something that negatively impacted another person and they apologized, or (4) did not apologize. In the “Receiver” study (N = 220), participants were asked to recall situations from the other person’s perspective in each of those four situations. In addition to describing the event, participants answered questions about the emotions they felt, characteristics of the event, the impact the action had on their relationship, and the impact the event had on their and the other person’s subsequent behavior. Responses from both Originators and Receivers indicated that thanking could improve relationships relative to not thanking, and responses from Receivers indicated that apologizing could mitigate the damage of offenses. Furthermore, the results suggest that many people may neglect to thank or apologize partly because they underestimate its value to the other person. Both in the case of favors and also in the case of offenses, the person who failed to thank or apologize reported less damage to her relationship than the person who would have been the recipient of such communication.

“When to promote and when to play down the self? Revealing negative information to create a positive impression” (with Andras Molnar and Silvia Saccardo)

Reporting one’s successes to others can require a delicate balance of revealing the information without coming across as a braggart and without making others feel threatened. One potential strategy to deal with this is to self-deprecate, or simultaneously reveal competence-decreasing information. We theorize that people engage in costly self-deprecation in order to enhance perceived warmth. In a series of studies (N = 1,023), we find that this is indeed the effect of self-deprecation, but only when the status of the listener is lower than that of the speaker; when listener status is higher, self-deprecation is more detrimental than self-promotion. In a hypothetical study, we find that people make choices in line with this. We are currently examining this with real, incentivized communication choices.

“The Lesser of Two Evils: Revealing the Choice Set to Signal Good Intentions” (with Andras Molnar) [download working paper]

Many situations require people to pick among only bad options, and in some of these cases, observers will only see the selected option (e.g., policy-makers voting on one of two bills, both of which negatively impact voters in some way). As a result, observers may attribute bad intentions to the decision-maker. Impression management in such cases is not about making the right choice—there are only bad choices—but instead, it is about explaining one’s choice, or revealing the choice set, to signal good intentions. To what extent does this motivate people? And is it a motivation that is intrinsic, i.e., present even when there are not reputational consequences? In two studies (N = 896), we investigated these questions, finding that people were willing to reveal their choice set to the other person, even in a one-shot anonymous interaction with no reputational consequences—they were even willing to pay money to do this. This was primarily restricted to cases when revealing would signal good, rather than bad, intentions, indicating that the desire is not “to be understood” generally, but “to be understood as good.”

Extending the Time Horizon: Elevating Concern for Rare Events by Communicating Losses Over a Longer Period of Time(with Michael Hand and Howard Kunreuther) [working paper available here]

Companies and individuals tend to underprepare for rare, catastrophic events because they ignore small probabilities and fail to appreciate how risk accumulates. To address this, we present a novel risk communication strategy: “extending the time horizon,” i.e., presenting the cumulative probability of loss across time (e.g., a 26% chance of flood over 30 years instead of 1% per year). Across three experiments in different contexts, we investigated the effectiveness of this intervention on motivating protective action. Extending the time horizon led participants to perceive greater risk and increased the likelihood they would opt for a small, but sure loss over the small possibility of a large loss. This behavior was robust to time and experiencing a loss. We also found that extending the time horizon made participants sensitive to smaller probabilities. Taken together, this simple intervention counters misperceptions of risk people have regarding rare events, and effectively motivates protective behavior.