Joining a social media stack, asking for someone’s firing in an online petition: these are ways to show others where we stand on social issues and gain praise from like-minded peers.
But this kind of virtue signaling has come under scrutiny, thanks in part to high-profile incidents where people have been quick to condemn, only to back off later as additional evidence comes in.
Consider the Harvard professors who expressed dismay at their university’s decision to sanction a colleague for sexual harassment, only to find that the majority later retract their words, admitting that they “didn’t have full facts about the case.” Or remember the viral video of the white Kentucky teenager who was widely mocked for making fun of an old Native American, just for longer video to eventually reveal a more subtle state. “I shared the clip, uncritically, on my own Twitter feed,” lamented one journalist. “We were wrong to jump the gun.”
Cases like these made Kellogg professor of management and organizations Nour Kteily wonder about the psychology behind the urge to quick judgment. “Are people evaluating the evidence? Are they really seeing the full picture?” asked. “Or do people choose to punish socially without considering all the evidence simply because they think it’s good to do so?”
Together with a colleague, Gillian Jordana former postdoctoral fellow at Kellogg’s Dispute Resolution Research Center and now an adjunct professor at Harvard Business School, Kteily set out to investigate the tendency to punish before we take the time to consider opposing perspectives—what researchers call “punishment without looking.” .”
Kteily and Jordan wanted to understand how common this phenomenon is. They also wanted to know: Do we fail to seek out opposing perspectives simply because it takes extra work? Or skipping this step could be seen as preferable—perhaps because it signals the strength of our moral position? “If I chose to punish without looking,” thought Catley, “that might make me seem particularly loyal.”
The researchers find that, overall, there is no reputational reward for failing to seek alternative perspectives. This should come as a relief to anyone hoping to live in a world with fewer reflective piles. But it’s not all good news, because there is a reputation reward for punishment, and some of the punishers won’t bother to look.
Investigating punishment without looking
To investigate punishment without looking, the researchers designed a clever online two-role game. One group of participants played the role of the “actor”: they read a public report chosen to appeal to their political views (eg, Democrats read a report calling for the firing of a police chief who made offensive comments about progressive movement Black Lives Matter ). They were then given the choice of whether to sign it. But first, the actors had the opportunity to explore opposing perspectives by reading articles defending the “other side” or searching the web for countervailing evidence.
The second group of participants, who shared the actor’s political beliefs, played the role of the “evaluator.” They observed at least some of the actor’s behavior and then chose whether to reward her with a small amount of money. Raters also used a 0-100 scale to rate agencies on their fairness, competence, loyalty to the cause, and overall positive impression.
The reputation rewards of punishment
The researchers used a version of this online game in four experiments.
In the first two they focused on the evaluators. How would people who chose to sign the petition (or not) perceive themselves—and would that depend on whether they took the time to consider opposing views before making their choice?
The researchers found that the evaluators He made rewarding actors’ decision to punish. “The actors who chose to sign were financially rewarded for doing so,” says Catley.
However, critically, they found no evidence that raters preferred actors who were not looking. While evaluators rated non-phenomenal actors as more faithful to the cause, this was “offset by an even greater hit to perceptions of the actor’s ability and fairness,” says Catley. Overall, actors who considered compensatory evidence before signing the petition were more generously rewarded by evaluators than those who did not.
This preference for debate held true even in scenarios where evaluators might value loyalty more than usual — such as when a Democratic actor has a family member on the police, casting doubt on their loyalty to a cause like Black Lives Matter Matter.
Putting on a show
For the last two experiments, the researchers turned their focus to the actors themselves. How much does their decision to punish depend on the fact that they were being watched? And what about their decision to seek additional evidence?
In both experiments, the researchers varied how much of the actor’s behavior would be scrutinized by the evaluators. For some actors, both the punishment and the stare were observable. for others, only the punishment—and for others, neither—was observable. Actors were also told that their raters were either highly or only moderately ideological.
“People are sensitive about their reputation,” says Kteily. For this reason, one might expect that actors are more likely to punish when they believe they are being judged by an ideological audience.
That’s exactly what the researchers found. Democratic operatives were more likely to sign the petition when their decision to punish was scrutinized by a highly ideological evaluator (30 percent) versus not at all scrutinized (19 percent), with similar but weaker results for scrutiny by a less ideological evaluator. Republican actors showed a similar pattern when they knew they were being scrutinized by Republican evaluators.
In other words: the pressure to punish is real. “We were actually able to influence real behavior on a real application,” says Kteily.
But when actors knew that their search for compensatory information would be observable, they were more likely to “look” than when only their decision to punish was observable.
This suggests that actors are not deliberately avoiding alternative perspectives to impress a like-minded audience.
However, when the punishment was visible but the gaze was not, many participants He made punish without looking—not to show loyalty, but to reap the social rewards of punishment without doing any extra work.
This pattern of results is particularly troubling for our online ecosystems, says Kteily.
“On most social media platforms, the public only knows if we have punished. The process by which we arrive at this decision is generally not disclosed. As a result, we miss the opportunity to take advantage of the pressure of fame to “look”. Instead, we end up with people who feel pressured to punish, many of whom don’t bother to look, increasing overall punishment rates without looking.”
A way forward
Given this new understanding of why we are quick to judge, can anything be done to stop the cycle of online outrage?
One idea would be to put more emphasis on reputation. “Imagine a world where, when you signed a petition, you had to explain your reasons,” says Catley.
It sounds far-fetched, but other mechanisms designed to encourage discussion have already been tried on online platforms. Kteily points out a tried on Twitter (now known as X). Before posting a link to an article that users hadn’t accessed themselves through the platform, they’d get a quick prompt: “Hey, did you read the article? Do you still want to publish it?’ says Kteili.
Adding a mechanism that would make a user’s thinking or fact-finding more visible to the public wouldn’t be easy, he says, but if we can pull it off, there’s reason to believe it could help.
“The very act of asking people to give their reasoning, or to put the best version of the other side’s perspective into sharper relief, could start to separate the wheat from the chaff,” says Catley. “If I’m having trouble coming up with reasons for the other side, then that’s a sign that I haven’t engaged with the other side at all.”