For those of you unfamiliar with the literature in economics, there is a type of experimental paradigm called the dictator game. In this game, there are two players, one of which is given a sum of money and told they can do whatever they want with it. They could keep it all for themselves, or they could divide it however they want between themselves and the other player. In general, you often find that many dictators – the ones in charge of dividing the money – give at least some of the wealth to the other player, with many people sharing it evenly. Some people have taken that finding to suggest there is something intrinsically altruistic about human behavior towards others, even strangers. There are, however, some concerns regarding what those results actually tell us. For instance, when you take the game out of the lab and into a more naturalistic setting, dictators don’t really tend to give other people any money at all, suggesting that most, or perhaps all, of the giving we see in these experiments is being driven by the demand characteristics of the experiment, rather than altruism per se. This should ring true to anyone who has even had a wallet full of money and not given some of it away to a stranger for no reason. Real life, it would seem, is quite unlike dictator games in many respects.

Relatedly, around two years ago, Rob Kurzban wondered to what extent the role of ostensibly altruistic punishment had been overstated by laboratory experiments. Altruistic punishment refers to cases in which someone – the punisher – will incur costs themselves (typically by paying a sum of money in these experiments) to inflict costs on others (typically by deducting a sum of money from another person). What inspired this wondering was a video entitled “bike thief“, where a man tries to steal his own bike, using a crowbar, hacksaw, and power tool to cut the locks securing the bike to various objects. Though many people pass by the man as he tries to “steal” his bike, almost no one intervenes to try and determine what’s going on. This video appears to show the same pattern of results as a previous one also dealing with bike theft: in that video, third parties are more likely to intervene if the ostensible thief is black or a woman. In the former case, people are more likely to confront him or call the police; in the latter case, some people intervened to help the woman, not to condemn her.

I have long found these videos fascinating, in that I feel they raise a lot of questions worthy of further consideration. The first of these is how do people decide when to become involved in the affairs of others? The act itself (sawing through a bike lock) is inherently ambiguous: Is the person trying to steal the bike, or is the bike theirs but they have lost the key? Further, even if the person is stealing the bike, there are certain potential risks to confronting them about it that might be better avoided. The second question is, given someone has decided to become involved, what do they do? Do they help or hinder the thief? Indeed, when the “thief” suggests that they lost the key, the third parties passing by seem willing to help, even when the thief is black; similarly, even when the woman all but says she is stealing the bike, people (typically men) continue to help her out. When third parties opt instead to punish someone, do they do so themselves, or do they try to enlist others to do the punishing (like police and additional third parties)? These two questions get at the matter of how prevalent and important third-party punishment is outside of the lab, and under what circumstance might that importance be modified.

Though there is a lack of control one faces from moving outside of the lab into naturalistic field studies, the value of these studies for understanding punishment is hard to overstate. As we saw initially with the dictator games, it is possible that all the altruistic behavior we observe in the lab is due to experimental demand characteristics; the same might be true of third-party moral condemnation. Admittedly, naturalistic observations of third-party involvement in conflicts is rare, likely owing to how difficult it is to get good observations of immoral acts that people might prefer you didn’t see (i.e. real bike thieves likely go through some pains to not be seen so others might be unlikely to become involved, unlike the actors in the videos). One particularly useful context for gathering these observations, then, is one in which the immoral act is unlikely to be planned and people’s inhibitions are reduced: in this case, when people are drinking at bars. As almost anyone who has been out to a bar can tell you, when people are drinking tempers can flare, people overstep boundaries, and conflicts break out. When that happens, there often tends to be a number of uninvolved third parties who might intervene, making it a fairly ideal context for studying the matter.

“No one else wears this shirt on my watch. No one.”

A 2013 paper by Parks et al examined around 800 such incidents of what was deemed to be verbal or physical aggression to determine what kinds of conflicts arose, what types people tends to get involved in them, and how they became involved. As an initial note – and this will become relevant shortly – aggression was defined in a particular way that I find to be troublesome: specifically, there was physical aggression (like hitting or pushing), verbal aggression (like insults), and unwanted or persistent sexual overtures. The problem here is that though failed or crude attempts at flirting might be unwanted, they are by no means aggressive in the same sense that hitting someone is, so aggression might have been defined too broadly here. That said, the “aggressive” acts were coded for severity and intent, third-party intervention was coded as present or absent and, when present, whether it was an aggressive or non-aggressive intervention, and all interactions were coded for the sex of the parties and their level of intoxication.

The first question is, obviously, how often did third parties become involved in an aggressive encounter? The answer is around a third of the time, on average, so third-party involvement in disputes is by no means an infrequent occurrence. Around 80% of the third parties that intervened were also male. Further, when third parties did become involved, they were about twice as likely to become involved in an non-aggressive fashion, relative to an aggressive one (so they were more often trying to diffuse the situation, rather than escalating it). Perhaps unsurprising in the fact that most disputes tended to be initiated by people who appeared to be relatively more intoxicated, and the aggressive third parties tended to be drunker than the non-aggressive ones. So, as is well known, being drunk tends to lead to people being more aggressive, whether it comes to initiating conflicts or joining them. Third parties also tended to become more likely to get involved in disputes as the severity of the disputes rose: Minor insults might not lead to much involvement on the parts of others, while throwing a punch or pulling out a knife will. This also meant that mutually aggressive encounters – ones that are likely to escalate – tended to draw more third-party involvement that one-sided aggression.

Of note is that the degree of third party involvement did fluctuate markedly: The disputes that drew the most third-party involvement were the male-on-male, mutually aggressive encounters. In those cases, third parties got involved around 70% of the time; more than double the average involvement level. By contrast, male-on-female aggression drew the least amount of third-party intervention; only around 17% of the time. This is, at first, a very surprising finding, given that women tend to receive lighter sentences for similar crimes, and violence against women appears to be less condoned than violence against men. So why would women garner less support when men are aggressing against them? Well, likely because unwanted sexual attention falls under the umbrella term of aggression in this study. Because “aggressive” does not equate to “violent” in the paper, all of the mixed-sex instances of “aggression” need to be interpreted quite cautiously. The authors note as much, wondering if male-on-female aggression generated less third-party involvement because it was perceived as being less severe. I think that speculation is on the right track, but I would take it further: Most of the mixed-sex “aggression” might have not been aggressive at all. By contrast, when it was female-female mutual aggression (less likely to be sexual in nature, likely involving a fight or the threat of one), third parties intervened around 60% of the time. In other words, people were perfectly happy to intervene on behalf of either sex, so long as the situation was deemed to be dangerous.

Another important caveat to this research is that the relationship of the third parties that became involved to the initial aggressors was not known. That is, there was no differentiation between a friend or a stranger coming to someone’s aid when aggression broke out. If I had to venture a guess – and this is probably a safe one – I would assume that most of the third parties likely had some kind of a relationship to the people in the initial dispute. I would also guess that non-violent involvement (diffusing the situation) would be more common when the third parties had some relationship to both of the people involved in the initial dispute, relative to when it was their friend against a stranger. I happen to feel that the relationship between the parties who become involved in these disputes has some rather large implications for understanding morality more generally but, since that data isn’t available, I won’t speculate too much more about it here. What I will say is that the focus on how strangers behave towards one another in the lab – as is standard for most research on moral condemnation – is likely missing a large part of how morality works, just like how experimental demand characteristics seemed to make people look more altruistic than they are in naturalistic settings. Getting friends together for research poses all sorts of logistically issues, but it is a valuable source of information to start considering.

References: Parks, M., Osgood, D., Felson, R., Wells, S., & Graham, K., (2013). Third party involvement in barroom conflicts. Aggressive Behavior, 39, 257-268.

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