*** Please note: This meeting will be recorded ***
"People punish moral transgressions for reputational gain, even when they personally question whether punishment is merited"
People punish wrongdoers in order to appear virtuous. But is this true even in ambiguous situations, where people may personally question whether punishment is merited? I will present three studies (total n = 4863) in which we investigate the willingness of liberal subjects to enact costly punishment of a university professor facing sexual harassment allegations. In our ambiguous (vs. unambiguous) condition, the allegations were less severe and the evidence for them was weaker—creating a murkier moral case for the relevant punishment. And yet in Study 1, we created a context in which subjects in both conditions expected punishing to look equally good in the eyes of a salient audience. We achieved this by describing the audience as more ideological in the ambiguous condition, because people expected more ideological audiences to be more supportive of punishment. Next, using this context, Study 2 measured the power of (equally strong) reputational incentives to encourage ambiguously vs. unambiguously deserved punishment. Subjects in the ambiguous condition used punishment for reputational gain, punishing at higher rates when their behavior was observable to their audience. In fact, making punishment observable was as effective at increasing punishment in the ambiguous (vs. unambiguous) condition—even though subjects in the ambiguous condition were, on average, far less personally supportive of punishment. Finally, in Study 3, reputational incentives again encouraged ambiguously-deserved punishment—even among individuals who, before learning that punishment could enhance their reputation, reported reservations about its morality. Together, our results suggest that people punish alleged wrongdoers for reputational gain, even when they personally question whether punishment is merited.