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The Punishment Aggregation Effect: When The Same Punishment Appears More Severe and Increases Punishment Satisfaction

When 1000 people are injured due to organizational negligence, regulatory bodies may either report that they fined the organization $10,000 (aggregate frame) or $10 per person (per-unit frame). But regulatory punishments are often presented in aggregate form. Can the framing influence psychological reactions, and hence moral evaluations? Across four preregistered studies (N = 1967), we find that it does. Despite conveying the same information, people perceive punishment in the aggregate frame as harsher and more adequate. As a result, they are also more likely to perceive the punishment as more satisfying, and as more likely to deter future bad behavior. Furthermore, these psychological outcomes have important legal and political consequences. Punishment framed in its aggregate (vs. per-unit) form induced people to trust and keep the incumbent regulator more, be less likely to seek further punishment, and be less likely to require the organization to change its operations.

Simone Tang
Cornell University
United States

Hajin Kim
University of Chicago
United States

Genevieve Helleringer
Oxford University
United Kingdom


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