Why Being Treated Unfairly Can Make You Unfair

Psychologist Xijing Wang explains why we permit those who were wronged to act in immoral ways.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 10, 2022

A new study published in the British Journal of Psychology has shown that we, as observers, are less critical and more permissive of unfair acts of those we believe were unfairly treated in the past, leading to a cycle of immorality that can be hard to break.

I recently spoke to psychologist Xijing Wang of the City University of Hong Kong, co-author of the paper, to understand this cycle of immoral behavior better. Here's a summary of our conversation.

What is immoral behavior? What inspired you to study this topic?

The definition of immoral behavior can be broad and can include various forms of maltreatment and transgressions in daily life. We are quite familiar with immoral behaviors that are tangible, such as stealing another's property or bribery.

Immoral behavior and maltreatment could also be relational. For example, a deserving employee could lose a promotion due to his/her superiors playing favorites at work. Another common example would be bullying.

Although human societies have made a lot of progress throughout history, it is still not uncommon for people to experience maltreatment at the hand of immoral individuals. It is even easier and more prevalent for people to observe other people suffering from maltreatment.

Importantly, people's moral judgments can significantly shape the outcomes for the perpetrator, the victims, and even the system as a whole. Their moral judgments can have important implications for third-party interventions.

What was the main hypothesis of your study? How did you arrive at it?

Previous studies have already found that people have a general tendency to reciprocate. Kindness is, understandably, paid back to the initial favor giver. What is interesting is that it is also paid forward to a completely new target.

The same pattern applies to negative reciprocity. After being subjected to maltreatment, individuals tend to retaliate against the perpetrator. People also have a general tendency to pay forward the maltreatment experienced by them to an innocent target.

The interesting question that remains unknown to us is this: How do people morally view such generalized negative reciprocity?

Theoretically, moral judgment should be based completely on the nature and severity of the act itself. However, would the prior suffering of the perpetrator make a difference? These judgments could significantly affect social behavior, given the inherently social nature of morality.

We hypothesized that people may hold a generalized compensation belief, i.e., individuals would consider perpetrators' prior experiences and would then morally permit paying forward unfair treatment to an innocent person. Broadly speaking, we contend that individuals judge negative behavior as morally permissible when the perpetrator has been the victim of past unfair or unjust behavior.

This is because people don't just care about the net equity they receive within and across relationships. As observers, they like to see net equity across relationships for other people.

So, the maltreatment a victim experiences creates a debt. Permission to pay forward the initial maltreatment, even at the cost of hurting an innocent person, can be considered some form of compensation for the original victim. This cancels the previous debt, and the original victim achieves net equity.

What was the methodology of your research? What would you say was your most interesting finding?

We used economic games and diverse real-life scenarios to test this hypothesis.

We told participants, who were Amazon Mechanical Turk (Mturk) workers, that they were interacting with two other Mturk workers (i.e., Player A and Player B) online.

Player A and Player B would need to share eight tasks. Importantly, the payment for Player A and Player B would be the same no matter how the tasks were distributed between them.

In the no maltreatment condition, participants were informed that Player A, the decider, could decide how they would like the tasks to be distributed between themselves and Player B, and the recipient and Player B could only passively accept the offer made by the decider.

In this game, Player A decided to assign two tasks to himself and six tasks to Player B, i.e., Player A treated Player B unfairly.

In the previous maltreatment condition, in addition to the information given above, participants were also informed that Player A (the current decider) was a recipient in the previous game. Importantly, for that game, the previous decider forced Player A to complete six (out of eight) tasks.

That is, although Player A treated Player B unfairly, Player A was also treated unfairly by someone else before.

We found that participants, as the third-party observers, judged the Player A's act as significantly more morally acceptable in the previous maltreatment condition relative to participants in the no maltreatment condition. Participants were also less likely to punish this player by learning this player had previously received maltreatment. In other words, our generalized compensation belief has been supported.

Very interestingly, we found the existence of this generalized compensation belief across diverse situations and forms of treatment. To compensate for the loss, the content (or form) of maltreatment of two interaction rounds (i.e., X to A and A to B) can be identical or non-identical. That is, the compensation may take the same form as the initial unfair experience or assume a different form.

More broadly, paying-forward maltreatment does not always have to be from one individual to another; maltreatment could also be received from or paid forward to non-human targets (e.g., computer to person A, and person A to person B).

In addition, the forms of maltreatment could be tangible and material (e.g., property loss, resource allocation) or non-tangible and relational (e.g., social exclusion, bullying). In both these forms of immoral behavior, observers permit paying forward of maltreatment, hurting an innocent person.

You say the generalized compensation belief leads to a cycle of immorality. Could you expand on this?

The generalized compensation belief might have implications for paid-forward maltreatment at the group and societal level. For instance, people would resort to immoral behaviors (e.g., damaging public facilities) that cause trouble for and even hurt innocent others, to retaliate against certain targets (e.g., governmental policies) for the maltreatment they have received previously.

Their acts could receive permission or at least a remission of punishment from observers (who are the majority of people in any social movement), creating new chains of immoral acts in society.

This is because people draw from an actor's past to make moral judgments about the present. This is why we may be mired in a cycle of unfair, unjust, and immoral actions and reactions.

What are some ways we can break this cycle? What practical advice does your research offer to victims of immoral acts?

Ideally, when facing maltreatment and suffering, it is more effective to treat these unfair experiences as opportunities to mature and grow rather than ruminating on the negative experience.

Our findings suggest that such an expectation may contradict a natural moral belief people tend to hold. However, it could still be an ideal for people to strive for.

Our research leads us to two possible solutions:

  1. At the individual level, people (as historical victims) could try to find better alternatives to compensate for the wrongs of the past (not by hurting new innocent persons). As third-party observers, people should believe that better alternatives to compensate for the wrongs of the past (not by hurting new innocent persons) need to be used.
  2. More fundamentally, organizations and societies should rectify prior injustices through systemic changes, e.g., by not letting the initial round of injustice happen or (at least) punishing the historical perpetrator once injustice occurs and/or compensating the historical victim properly.