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The source of punishment matters: Third-party punishment restrains observers from selfish behaviors better than does second-party punishment by shaping norm perceptions

Hezhi Chen, Zhijia Zeng and Jianhong Ma

PLOS ONE, 2020, vol. 15, issue 3, 1-10

Abstract: Punishment aims to deter individuals’ selfish behaviors, but it can occasionally backfire. Some scholars have proposed promoting prosocial behaviors using punishment that communicates positive social norms because it provides additional motivation. However, it is unclear which factors affect the norm expressive function of punishment. This study proposes that third-party punishment communicates more positive normative information, and thus, promotes more prosocial behavior in observers than does second-party punishment. Using dictator games, we investigated the effects of second-party punishment compared to third-party punishment of another’s unfair sharing on observers’ norm perceptions and subsequent sharing decision-making. Two experiments consistently found that third-party punishment was more effective than second-party punishment at inducing observers’ beliefs that unfair distribution was unusual (descriptive norm) and unacceptable (injunctive norm). The altered descriptive but not injunctive norm perception further guided individuals’ own sharing behaviors. Taken together, these results suggest that third-party punishment might be better than second-party punishment at decreasing selfish behaviors by shaping individuals’ norm perceptions, especially descriptive norm perception, regarding the relevant behaviors.

Date: 2020
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DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0229510

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