Are we too harsh?

FEB 1 — I was queuing up to pay for groceries at a local supermarket when a middle-aged woman came from a different direction towards the counter. Standing next to the customer in front of me, she was apparently intent on cutting the queue. I was already sighing inside with exasperation.

Then the customer making the payment finished, and she started to put her things on the counter. But the cashier was having none of it. “Let him first,” said the cashier, whom I estimate to be in her early twenties, pointing at me. “You think so easy to cut queue ah.”

I felt a flash of smugness. As I unloaded my trolley onto the counter, the woman’s face was stony with just a dash of red. But it didn’t end there. The cashier was still going on as she checked out my items.

“Some people just have no manners, simple thing as lining up also cannot. Maybe jakun, don’t know how to line up.”

She went on and on with her tirade, which drew glances from the next counter. My flash of smugness was long gone by then and I started to wonder how angry the cashier must be to keep ranting like that and insulting the other woman so harshly. When I was done, she let the woman put her things on the counter but I could still hear her going on about the line-cutting as I walked away with my purchases.

But such disproportionate responses to slights (perceived or otherwise) are not uncommon. Stories abound of would-be thieves or pickpockets caught in public, tied to lampposts and then beaten up before the police are even called. Passers-by then feel entitled to throw a quick punch even though the guy is half-dead already because the thief "did something wrong and deserves punishment."

The question is, why?

A research by Scott Wiltermuth, assistant professor of management and organisation at the USC Marshall School of Business, found that a sense of having power comes with a black-and-white perception of right and wrong — especially wrong. People with power (whether real or perceived) tend to punish more severely than people without power as they see things less ambiguously.

In effect, the moral clarity associated with being "powerful" leads to a situation where what some people (with a sense of power) think is appropriate punishment can be seen as overly harsh or even draconian by others.

This follows a 2009 finding by Joris Lammers and Diederik A. Stapel of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, and by Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois that power leads to the tendency of practising moral hypocrisy. The research found that having power leads to people judging others more strictly in terms of morals while being less strict when judging their own actions. This tendency is why we often catch people in positions of power contradicting their public views and opinions with private actions that go against the very thing they advocate to the masses.

A sense of having power or "being in the right" lends moral clarity where we judge things clearly as either right or wrong, with no in between, and correspondingly dole out more severe punishment. When we ourselves are the ones executing the punishment, that same sense of power lowers our own bar for right or wrong and sometimes we cross the line of propriety in the name of punishing wrongs without realising or acknowledging it.

But life in reality isn’t so black and white. People sometimes have mitigating reasons behind their actions, like starving kids stealing bread at the market. And sometimes we forget that people are just humans with the same tendency for mistakes, and that there should be balance in everything, even punishment. 

So the next time we’re punishing, let’s ask ourselves: am I being disproportionately harsh?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.



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