Learning Moral Values: Another’s Desire to Punish Enhances One’s Own Punitive Behavior

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Abstract

There is little consensus about how moral values are learned. Using a novel social learning task, we examine whether vicarious learning impacts moral values—specifically fairness preferences—during decisions to restore justice. In both laboratory and Internet-based experimental settings, we employ a dyadic justice game where participants receive unfair splits of money from another player and respond resoundingly to the fairness violations by exhibiting robust nonpunitive, compensatory behavior (baseline behavior). In a subsequent learning phase, participants are tasked with responding to fairness violations on behalf of another participant (a receiver) and are given explicit trial-by-trial feedback about the receiver’s fairness preferences (e.g., whether they prefer punishment as a means of restoring justice). This allows participants to update their decisions in accordance with the receiver’s feedback (learning behavior). In a final test phase, participants again directly experience fairness violations. After learning about a receiver who prefers highly punitive measures, participants significantly enhance their own endorsement of punishment during the test phase compared with baseline. Computational learning models illustrate the acquisition of these moral values is governed by a reinforcement mechanism, revealing it takes as little as being exposed to the preferences of a single individual to shift one’s own desire for punishment when responding to fairness violations. Together this suggests that even in the absence of explicit social pressure, fairness preferences are highly labile.

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