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For Molly Crocket, experimental psychologist at Oxford University, people voting against self-interests makes perfect sense.

Through her studies of the psychology of punishment she has found that rather than accepting what they see as an unfair scenario, people will often prefer to punish others, even if there’s a personal cost to themselves. Their desire to punish, she believes, can motivate people to vote against the political establishment without knowing if the alternative really is a better option.

This has been studied for more than 40 years through lab variations of the ‘ultimatum game’. One player is given money and has the option of splitting it with a second player. That second player can accept or reject the money; if he rejects it, neither player gets a penny.

Researchers have found that if the first player offers the second less than 30% of the money then most second players will see that as unfair and reject it. They will forgo all money themselves just to punish the first player.

What happened last year with elections around the world like Brexit, Colombian referendum and the US Presidential election can be seen as real-world examples of the punishing behavior. Although this is not the case for all voters, it was consistent with people’s commentaries.

Read more:The year we voted dangerously.

More so, this behavior can be addictive. In a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2013, her brain imaging shows the act of punishment engages the part of the brain that signals reward; the same area that’s hijacked by addictive drugs. “Certainly the raw ingredients are there, behaviorally and neurally, for expressing moral outrage to have an addictive quality,” she told Quartz.  

Also, she found that people can justify their actions by saying they were trying to teach a moral lesson, rather than because punishing feels good.

“Data suggests that people are telling themselves and others that they’re punishing for moral reasons when in fact the motivations are more complicated than that. The motive to harm someone who you perceived has harmed you is a very strong force.”

But why is this becoming so politically obvious?

“One speculation is that this destructive impulse to punish may be even stronger when people are under chronic stress, for example during an economic recession,” she said during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2017.

Also, social media can fuel the desire for revenge.

“We know that punishing engages the brain’s motivational circuitry and there’s an immediately gratifying aspect to punishment. When you express outrage on Facebook or Twitter, not only do you get the immediate satisfaction of posting that but you also get repeated and amplified reinforcement of that behavior because people like what you say, they share it, they re-post it, and it creates a highly self-reinforcing cycle.

Also, she believes populist movements have taken advantage of people’s impulse to punish. “Around the world populist movements are wreaking economic destruction and social turmoil in the name of moral principles. That may be the story people are telling themselves and others, but it's likely not the only motive.”

To stop the cycle of retribution ultimatum game experiments have found a way. If respondents are given an alternative channel to express their dissatisfaction with unfair offers, like sending a written message to the first player, then they will send that message and accept the offer.

“When people feel that destructive behavior is the only option they have to make their voices heard, they are going to take that option, even if it hurts them financially. But if they have alternative channels to express their displeasure, they may be able to act in a way that's consistent with their long-term economic interest and still feel satisfied.”

Nonetheless, there’s conflicting evidence about this. On the one hand, research has shown giving people an alternative channel to express displeasure makes them less likely to punish. But, on the other hand, research on aggression shows that “venting” makes people more likely to be aggressive in the future, explained Crockett.

For now, she wants to test the hypothesis that punishment has an addictive quality and if so, learn from addiction research on how to counter the punitive impulse.

 

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