The Situationist

Just Deserts?

Posted by Adam Benforado on November 19, 2010

Over the last several months, I have been conducting some experiments on retribution with cognitive psychologist Geoff Goodwin.  I’ll be presenting some of our results next month at a workshop at Vanderbilt and hope to do some posts on the Situationist concerning our findings soon after.  Thinking a lot about the motivation to deliver just deserts has had a strange and unexpected effect on me.  I’ve found myself hyperaware of my own desire to punish when I read newspaper articles describing criminal acts or when I see movies where offenses are committed.  I’ve also noticed myself recasting events that would seem to have little to do with retributive motives.

Today, I came across a video of a man running onto the field during last week’s Fresno State versus Nevada football game.  As often seems to happen in these streaker scenarios, the man received extremely rough treatment at the hands of the security guards, who repeatedly smashed his head into the ground, after eventually running him down.

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It made me wonder: what justifies the violent actions of the guards, if anything?  What makes this brutality seem acceptable, or at least somewhat acceptable, when it clearly wouldn’t be if administered to a fan sitting quietly in his seat, eating a hot dog?  I expect that if you asked university officials they would give you a story about needing to incapacitate a potentially dangerous and disruptive individual as quickly as possible.  If pressed, some others might say that guards need to be rough with men like this because it deters other drunken individuals from heading out onto the field.  But might a better explanation have to do with a collective sense that getting beaten up is just what you get when you break the rules and streak across the football field?

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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Intuitions of Punishment?,” Michael McCullough on the Situation of Revenge and Forgiveness,” “Steven Pinker Speaks at Harvard Law School,” “John Darley on “Justice as Intuitions” – Video,” “The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” The Situation of Revenge,” “The Situation of Punishment,” and “Why We Punish.”

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