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Should We Let Violinists’ Bad Behavior Slide?

Would you vote for a musician who was clearly better than her competitor, but also behaved immorally?
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Imagine, for a moment, you’re a judge at a music competition. You learn that a highly promising violinist has been sabotaging her competitors’ performances. Do you punish her for this behavior?

Surprising new research from Switzerland suggests the answer may depend upon your line of work.

“People turn out to be choosy with respect to the (ethical) norms they are willing to enforce in particular circumstances,” writes a research team led by Christine Clavien of the University of Lausanne’s Department of Ecology and Evolution.

Its study, published in the online journal PLoS One, provides limited support for the notion that humans are inherently inclined to punish others who violate an established code of conduct—even if they’re not directly affected by the misbehavior in question. According to some evolutionary theorists, this impulse reflects the fact that societies that keep transgressors in line are more likely to thrive.

But the research also suggests that punishing rule-breakers is far from a universal impulse. At least in this study, it manifested in counterintuitive ways, with teachers-in-training being the most likely to punish the badly behaving musician, and police recruits the least.

The experiment featured three groups of students: 66 in training to be schoolteachers (they ranged in age from 18 to 35), 109 taking preparatory classes to become police officers (ages 19 to 43), and 122 high schoolers (ages 14 to 18). Sitting at a computer and wearing headphones, each participant watched videos of two professional female violinists performing an excerpt from a Mozart violin concerto.

They were told the musicians were in a competition, and the winner would be awarded a coveted recording contract. “By design,” the researchers write, “one violinist’s musical performance was better, according to professional standards, than the other.”

After watching the performances, half the participants were given positive information about both players’ personal behavior. For the other half, “the more talented violinist was described as morally disrespectful,” the researchers write. Specifically, they were told by one of her professors that she mistuned her fellow students’ instruments and sabotaged their scores just before concerts.

With this information in mind, all participants then voted for the “one violinist that they considered worthy of career advancement.” The researchers found the accusations of immoral conduct cost the miscreant violinist votes, but this effect was not consistent across the board.

Of the three groups, the future teachers were by far the most likely to punish the perpetrator. Among teachers-in-training who heard good things about both, over 80 percent chose the clearly superior player. But those who learned about her misbehavior split their votes just about evenly, with a significant number voting against her even though they realized she was the superior musician.

In contrast, learning of her misbehavior had almost no effect on how the high school students and prospective police officers voted. For them, news of her immoral actions decreased support by only about 2.5 percent.

On the surface, this is somewhat surprising; one might expect future law-enforcement officials to be particularly sensitive to rule-breaking behavior. But then, the researchers note, the specific infractions mentioned here “may be more relevant for teachers” than for peace officers, since no actual laws were broken.

While it might make sense for a cop to let a misbehaving youngster off with a warning, “It is strategically advantageous for teachers to be able to punish undisciplined students, so as to discourage them from disrupting the class atmosphere in the future,” Clavien and her colleagues note.

So while the participating prospective teachers weren’t personally hurt by the violinist’s behavior, they could easily imagine themselves dealing with a similar situation, and were thus more likely to punish such disruptive activity. We may conceive of morality as a set of relatively rigid rules, but when it comes to actual enforcement, context matters—a lot.

It all offers fodder for a new hybrid genre of reality TV. Anyone for American Idol meets Judge Judy?