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Altruistic punishment. Why do we fight against evil in the name of justice?

07.07.2019 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin
Altruistic punishment

The desire to punish others, even to the detriment of our own interests, begins to manifest itself as early as 3 years of age

A group of researchers from Yale and New York universities under the leadership of Daniel Yudkin set out to understand an interesting feature of the human character—the desire to punish the “villain” in the name of justice, even if the misdemeanor committed was not directed at oneself. The experiment involved more than 200 children aged between 3 and 6 years. Such an early age was not chosen by chance. The natural thinking of the child helps to understand the basic psychological processes on which a person’s tendency towards altruistic punishment is based.

Altruistic punishment (or punishment by a third party) is a special model of behaviour. It is when a third party—an observer who is not involved in the conflict—assumes the role of arbitrator, punishing the perpetrator according to his or her internal moral attitudes. There is no pity for the “justly punished”. The “arbitrator” considers that the punishment is deserved and feels a sense of moral satisfaction. The concept of altruistic punishment was first introduced by Swiss economists Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher in 2004.

The essence of the experiment

The children were brought one by one into the classroom, in the corner of which there was a large red slide. Everyone was allowed to slide down, and they did so with pleasure. After that, the children were shown a video of a girl ‘Stacey’ tearing up someone’s drawing. It was said that that she would soon come to class to enjoy the slide. The children were given two plates saying “The slide is open” and “The slide is closed”, allowing or prohibiting the use of the slide for everyone. About half of the children decided to punish Stacey and “close” the slide, even though by their decision they forbade themselves from using the slide. The children were fully aware of the consequences of their choice for themselves.


The experiment showed that many of us are inherently willing to uphold our own moral principles. This explains public support for social protests and empathy for protesters, as well as the emergence of unexpected defenders of victims of street criminals and calls to the police from random witnesses to crimes.

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