Twenty-one years ago Rwanda was torn apart by violence. Members of the Hutu majority slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors, killing hundreds of thousands of Tutsi minorities in only four months. Once the massacre finally stopped, a difficult question arose: Was there a way to right these monstrous wrongs without igniting a murderous cycle of revenge and retribution?

Such a cycle would be the epitome of the ancient “eye for an eye” notion of justice, in which punishment is commensurate with the crime, an approach that still underlies most modern legal systems, including that of the U.S. Decades of research have demonstrated that people have a strong proclivity to punish transgressors. The practice can serve other functions, such as deterrence, but retribution is arguably a central goal. In fact, we as individuals punish even when it costs us to do so. One 1995 study found that if treated very unfairly, some people were willing to forgo up to three month's salary if it meant they could punish the perpetrator.

But would our desire for punishment persist if we had other options to restore justice? Aside from simply accepting the transgression, some form of reprimand is typically the only option available for righting a wrong. For that reason, we did not know—until now—how other options might stack up. Recent research from our laboratory suggests that tactics such as compensating the victim have significant advantages in their ability to amicably reconcile differences.

How justice is served

In a set of studies published in 2014 we asked more than 1,000 participants to play a game in which one participant had to split a sum of money between himself or herself and another participant. Often the first participant chose to keep most of the money. After receiving an unfair split, the second participant was then asked how he or she would like to redistribute the money. One option for restoring justice was to punish the culprit for unfair treatment by reducing that individual's monetary payout—a response commonly observed both in the lab and in the real world. But we also gave participants other options, including the ability to rebalance the scales by increasing their own monetary payout. We found that around nine out of 10 victims preferred to compensate themselves rather than exact punishment, even after a wildly unfair split. Although that result is not particularly surprising (who doesn't like money?), participants also felt that this result was enough to right the wrong: they generally did not decide to also punish the transgressor—even when it was easy to do.

Evidence from actual legal situations supports the idea that for some crimes victims will choose a different path to justice if it is available. Restorative justice programs, such as the commission established in South Africa to respond to apartheid-era violations of human rights, typically prioritize victims' needs and enable the perpetrator to tell his or her story. These elements foster a dialogue between victim and criminal that results in two important consequences: victims report high rates of satisfaction with the process, and offenders are more likely to take responsibility for their crimes.

These programs are not the norm, however. Victims do not typically decide the fate of their assailers. Judges and juries do because they are considered to be impartial and can thus more objectively mete out justice.

As part of our 2014 studies of punishment, we also examined whether third parties such as juries actually do handle social transgressions differently than victims do. In another series of games, we asked participants to act like juries—neutral third parties doling out punishment to the wrongdoer and compensation to the afflicted. First, participants observed an individual make a very uneven split of money with another person. After observing this unfair treatment, participants had to decide how to reapportion the money between the individual who had divided the money and the person who received an unjust portion. More often than not, the third parties chose the most retributive option, where the victim was monetarily compensated and the transgressor was punished by having his or her payout decreased.

The findings from this part of our experiment starkly contrast with the decisions that participants made after they directly experienced being treated unfairly (that is, when they were the victim). Thus, a gap seems to exist between what we as victims want and what third parties decide for us. When we have been slighted, we tend to our own needs rather than pursuing punishment, but when we make decisions on behalf of someone else, we prefer an eye-for-an-eye strategy. This finding calls into question our reliance on the putative impartiality of juries and judges.


Our data also offer hope for our overburdened and underfunded justice system. By emphasizing restorative justice for the victim rather than punishment of the offender, we could reduce some of the need for long prison sentences—a potential boon given how packed and expensive the prison systems are in the U.S. In fact, an emerging literature has begun to shift the emphasis away from punishment toward other ways of restoring justice. In 2009 psychologist David Rand, then at Harvard University, and his colleagues reported findings from a game in which players could encourage one another to contribute to a common pool by rewarding donations or punishing stinginess. Over multiple rounds of play, Rand and his colleagues found that rewards, unlike punishment, boost total giving. In a paper published in 2014 economist Nikos Nikiforakis, now at New York University Abu Dhabi, and Helen Mitchell, policy officer in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, revealed that people exhibit an increased desire to punish if it is the only available option to restore justice.

Essentially the growing literature suggests that the motivation to punish appears to be a function of the landscape of choices presented. Giving people more ways to restore justice, whether it involves a guided reconciliation process between victim and perpetrator or simply focusing on compensation for the wronged party, could actually change how people feel about punishing a crime. Altogether these studies suggest that punishment—which is certainly desirable in some instances—should not always be considered the gold standard for justice.

Though less often employed, reconciliatory nonpunitive approaches toward restoring justice have proved successful in the real world. These approaches can work for even the most egregious crimes against humanity. In Rwanda, the nonprofit organization Association Modeste et Innocent (AMI) is bringing together Hutus and Tutsis to reconcile one of the most horrific genocides in history. Through different programs, AMI teaches both the perpetrators and the victims about trauma healing, civic participation and peace education.

After receiving reconciliation counseling over many months, in which both sides are pushed to express their painful emotions, a Hutu perpetrator asks a Tutsi survivor of his crime—for example, a mother who survived the murder of her entire family—for forgiveness. Many Tutsi survivors have shown an impressive ability to forgive and thus have become reconciled with their Hutu perpetrators. With an aim to heal ties between neighbors, this initiative emphasizes restoration and forgiveness, not punishment. In doing so, it has the potential to curb the hate and violence that fuels a cycle of revenge and retribution.