Tag Archives: justice


Infants expect leaders to right wrongs, and are surprised when they don’t

Infants look to leaders to keep the peace, a new study finds.


Image via Pixabay.

Humans are very social creatures. Living in a group, however, invariably gives rise to some tension, conflict, and misdemeanor — and someone has to fix it. We have an innate understanding (and expectation) that this ‘someone’ is the leader of the group or some other kind of authority figure. New research shows that this understanding is baked into our hardware and that infants as young as 17 months of age expect leaders — but not others — to intervene when one member of their group transgresses against another.

I’m telling!

“We know that adults expect the leaders of social groups to intervene to stop within-group transgressions,” said Maayan Stavans, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Infant Cognition Lab and the paper’s lead author. “We wanted to know how early those expectations appear in human development, so we examined the question in very young children.”

The research was carried out in the lab of Renée Baillargeon, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois who led the research. The results add to a growing body of evidence showing that children have a well-developed understanding of social and power dynamics by their second year of life.

The team used a well-established method to gain insight into the reasoning of the children, who were too young to adequately express themselves verbally: infants tend to stare longer at events that develop in a way they didn’t expect, the team explains.

“By tracking how long children stare at different events, we gain insight into what they think,” Stavans said.

For the first two runs of the experiment, the researchers worked with 120 infants who sat comfortably in their parents’ laps and were shown a puppet play. These short skits involved bear puppets in two different scenarios: one involving a protagonist bear that two other bears treated as a leader, and the other a protagonist bear that appeared to have no authority over the other two bears. In both scenarios, the protagonist gave the other two bears toys for them to share, but one puppet quickly grabbed both for itself. Next, the protagonist would either rectify this (by redistributing the toys) or ignored the transgression (by approaching each bear without redistributing a toy).

“The scenarios differed in the status of the protagonist — was she a leader or not? — and in the protagonist’s response to the transgression — did she rectify the situation or ignore it?” Baillargeon said.

She explains that infants “stared longer” when the leader-protagonist ignored the wrongdoing rather than rectify it. This suggests they were expecting the leader to step up and intervene to right the injustice, and were surprised when it didn’t. The infants also stared for longer at the bear who took the toys than the victim bear when the leader ignored the event, likely to see what caused the leader’s reluctance to intervene.

On the other hand, the infants didn’t appear to show any surprise when the protagonist wasn’t a leader and didn’t address the wrongdoing. Infants consistently stared longer when leaders failed to act against wrongdoers, Stavans said. “But they held no particular expectation for intervention from nonleaders.”

In the third round of the experiment, one of the bears announced that it didn’t want a toy, and the other bear took both toys. In this case, the leader would either intervene to redistribute the toys or let the arrangement stand. The infants stared longer when the leader intervened to make sure that each bear had one toy.

“It was as if the infants understood that in this case there was no transgression, so they viewed it as overbearing for the leader to redistribute one of the toys to a bear who had made it clear she didn’t want one,” Stavans said.

“We knew from previous work that children this age have specific ideas about how followers will behave toward their leaders,” Baillargeon says. “Now we see that they also have complementary expectations about how leaders will behave toward their followers.”

The paper “Infants expect leaders to right wrongs” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Weather and crime: is there a connection?

Credit: Pixabay.

Some of the most interesting and informative aspects of criminal investigations are the motives and social or environmental conditions that contributed to specific criminal acts. From substance use to socioeconomic background and exposure to violent media, experts have attempted to understand the factors that make particular types of crimes more likely or that correlate to an increased overall crime rate. Studies in this area have made it clear that the circumstances that promote violence and crime are just as complex as the motivations of the perpetrators.

Recent research has tied a rise in crime rates to an environmental factor: the weather. Between extended cold spells to blistering summer heat, temperature and weather conditions have taken the blame for increased criminal activity in many different news stories covering a range of locations. In many cases, law enforcement officers and others seem convinced that atmospheric factors play a role in crime rates, but does the evidence actually show a correlation between weather and crime?


Fortunately, multiple studies have been completed to determine whether there is any truth to the claims that weather conditions in either extreme contribute to an increased likelihood of criminal activity. These studies have provided important insights into the ways that temperature influence the frequency of certain crimes.


Tracking ambient temperature and crime rates, a Finland study used nearly two decades of data to identify a possible connection between them. Researchers found that temperature changes were responsible for 10 percent of fluctuations in the nation’s crime rates — a 1.7 percent increase in criminal activity for each degree centigrade rise in the temperature. More specifically, the study found that increased serotonin levels resulting from high temperature likely contributed to increased impulsivity and a higher risk of crimes.

A recent comparison of crime and temperature data across ten major U.S. cities echoed the findings of the Finland study. Looking only at the number of shootings, the investigation found that as temperatures rose, so did the number of shooting victims in nine out of the ten cities (the outlier, San Francisco, has weather patterns that are notably more moderate). Additional details provided by the city of Philadelphia reveal that the crime increase comes solely from outdoor incidents – the number of indoor shootings stayed the same despite dramatic changes in temperature.


Another major American city, Chicago, provides further insights into the impact of weather and temperature on crime rates. Police crime data from the City of Chicago Data Portal indicates that within the annual summer crime peak, certain types of crime appear more weather-dependent. Out of seven major crime categories, theft, along with shootings and other battery, saw the greatest increase as temperatures rose, with nine additional incidents for every 10-degree temperature increase.

Other categories of crime are correlated to a lesser extent, including criminal damage (five more incidents per 10-degree increase) and assault (three additional incidents). Burglary, narcotics and homicide were significantly impacted by weather variations, limiting the correlation of temperature to certain types of crime.


This trend of violent crimes rising with the temperature has been corroborated by several studies across the globe, but it appears to be the only weather condition that relates to an increase in crime. Data collected in the South African city of Tshwane found significantly higher rates of violent, sexual and property crimes on the hottest days; violent crimes in particular rose 50 percent compared to the city’s coldest days. Rainfall had a much less noticeable relationship to crime rates, with a decrease in violent and sexual crimes, and only a 2 percent increase in property crimes.

Similarly, during cold weather conditions (ranging from standard winter to brutal blizzard conditions), crime instances tend to decrease. Knowing that hot weather is a factor in crime rates is valuable for law enforcement, and even more important is understanding why temperature seems to have such an influence on violence.


Current research and scholarship around the connection between temperature and crime, especially the most violent crimes, provides insights into the reason behind this intriguing correlation. Two main theories have been presented as the key reasons that hot temperatures may encourage additional criminal activity: the increase in opportunities for crime and the changes in temperament that result from warmer weather.


One of the most obvious explanations for weather’s apparent impact on crime is that warmer temperatures in general provide more opportunities for crime. Especially compared to cold or stormy weather, warm summer days encourage more time spent away from the home and more outdoor activities.

Along with increased opportunities for property-related crimes, there is an increase in interactions between people. Statistically speaking, more interactions provide a higher likelihood of a violent or criminal encounter. The Philadelphia study mentioned above is clear evidence of this connection between weather and opportunity.


The other element that is often referenced in warm weather’s influence on crime is a change in temperament that occurs along with the change in temperature. In the Finland study, hot temperatures were linked to changes in brain chemistry that made impulse and aggressive actions more likely — and it is far from the only research to make this connection.

Craig Anderson, leader of Iowa’s Center for the Study of Violence and expert in human aggression, explains that heat doesn’t cause violence but does tend to encourage it. As an example, hot temperatures make it more likely a pitcher will hit the player at-bat, but only after a batter on the pitcher’s team has been hit. The heat escalates situations by causing people to perceive more aggression in certain acts than may be intended. In other words, the mental effect of a warm day that makes you more likely to honk your horn is the same one that contributes to greater violence in the heat of summer.


The insight that hot temperatures do, in fact, have a connection to higher crime rates is important for several reasons. For those in law enforcement and related fields, this knowledge will help them prepare for the rise in violent acts that comes with a higher temperature. It can also provide a better understanding of the mental factors that contributed to the commission of a crime.

For environmentalists, the correlation between hot weather and crime is a valuable aspect of understanding the full impact of environmental changes on individuals. With the threat of global warming, temperature’s effect on crime rates becomes an even greater concern, and yet another reason to pay better attention to the environment.

Of course, temperature is just a part of the factors involved in an understanding of criminal justice and the environment, and it’s just one way that the two are connected to each other. At Virginia Wesleyan University, our online criminal justice degree and online environmental studies program are designed for students who want to explore this topic further. Our programs teach you the real-world skills you’ll need to succeed in your career, and we emphasize flexibility so that you can fit your education into your already busy life.

This article was originally published on the website of Virginia Wesleyan University and was re-posted with permission. 

Good-looking people are more likely to feel that life is fair

In a study that will raise a lot of eyebrows but will also seem completely unsurprising to some, attractive people feel that life is more just than non-attractive people.

Image credits: Nine Köpfer / Unsplash.

The study analyzed an unlikely connection between attractiveness and the belief in a just world, finding a strong correlation between the two.

“My primary area of research is the attractiveness stereotype, which refers to the human tendency to attribute positive traits to attractive people and negative traits to those deemed unattractive,” said R. Shane Westfall, a PhD student at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and corresponding author of the study.

“As I was reading more about the Just World Hypothesis for an unrelated topic, I noticed that the strongest endorsers of the hypothesis tend to be those favored by society. This led me to make a connection with my research, as more attractive individuals receive favorable treatment throughout their lives.”

As part of the study, 395 college students were asked to rate how much they agree with the following statements: “I feel that people get what they are entitled to have” and “I feel that people who meet with misfortune have brought it on themselves.”

Researchers found that students who were more attractive were significantly more likely to agree with the statements — both when their attractiveness was rated by peers, and when they self-rated. Additionally, both attractiveness measures were found to have a relationship with participant’s level of life satisfaction, researchers write.

It’s not the first time a study finds this type of result. Studies have consistently shown that belief in a just world is strongly correlated with societal privilege, and attractiveness is as straightforward as privilege goes.

As a major limitation of the study, researchers note that the participants were largely college-aged Americans. This carries on two consequences: first of all, participants were younger, and at an age where they place more importance on looks. Secondly, there are likely significant cultural differences associated with the view of a just world.

However, the findings strongly suggest that physical attractiveness, and more importantly, overall privilege, affects our opinion of the world and even our subjective experience as a human — and in a way, this makes a lot of sense. If the world treats us good, we think of it as a fair place. But if it doesn’t… well then it’s only normal that we don’t.

The study, “The Influence of Physical Attractiveness on Belief in a Just World“, was authored by R. Shane Westfall , Murray G. Millar, and Aileen Lovitt, and published in in the journal Psychological Reports.

Person in chains.

Chimps and children as young as six will try to witness antisocial behavior being punished

Our compassion towards others’ suffering seems to be more conditional than we’d like to believe. New research has found that both humans and chimpanzees will remain unsympathetic towards individuals perceived to behave in an antisocial manner. Pain inflicted towards such individuals will be viewed as a just punishment and an acceptable tool to punish misbehavior.

Person in chains.

Image via Pixabay.

Empathy, an uneasiness with witnessing another’s anguish, and a desire to limit suffering as much as possible seem to be hard-wired into human nature. Such emotions could have evolved, in part, as they benefited the group at large. Altruism helped stragglers keep up with everyone else. This, in turn, helped cement strong bonds within the group, which everybody later used to go on and babify. Marvelous!

It’s a very summarised explanation, of course, so it by no means captures the full story. It does illustrate why a desire to help our peers and limit their suffering is advantageous from an evolutionary point of view, however. This suggests that group dynamics have led, at least in part, to the maturing of such traits in higher social organisms, including us humans.

But there’s also a darker face to the coin of altruism, according to a new paper published by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) and the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI EVA). When dealing with somebody who’s behaved in an antisocial manner, this altruism is withheld even when we are witnessing that person being hurt, the researchers report.

Best served cold

This save-punish dynamic has been hinted at by previous work, which determined, among other factors, that people tend to perceive a perpetrator’s pain as a just punishment for their actions. As such, inflicting pain, rather than reducing it, is viewed as an acceptable tool to penalize those who contravene the group’s rules. Furthermore, past results have suggested that people tend to witness such disciplinary measures with a sense of spite, forming an experience that’s diametrically opposed to altruism or empathy.

To get to the bottom of things, the MPI team set out to discover the age at which we develop a motivation to watch what we perceive as a deserved punishment, and whether or not chimpanzees also share this feature.

First, they showed a group of 4-6 year-olds a puppet theatre performance involving two characters, which would at one point ask one of the children for their toy. One of them was a friendly character who gave the children their toy back, another was uncooperative and would keep it for itself. After the act, a third puppet would come in to play the role of a punisher and pretend to hit the first two with a stick. Children in the audience could, at this point, decide if they wanted to watch the hits by paying with a coin, or if they would rather exchange it for stickers.


I hope the third puppet was Kermit.
Image via Pixabay.

While the group largely refused to watch the friendly puppet being hit, the six-year-olds seemed to have no such qualms about the uncooperative one. A majority of them chose to forgo the stickers and spend their coins to witness the punishment. Perhaps more chillingly, the authors also concluded from their facial expressions that the six-year-olds were actually enjoying the show. Four- and five-year-old children did not show signs of this even when they chose to witness justice being served.

The team reports that chimpanzees showed a similar response. Members from the MPI EVA at Leipzig Zoo recruited two zookeepers for their study, which was designed very similarly to the puppet show. One would regularly feed the chimps, and another took their food away. Later in the experiment, another person would pretend to beat both of these zookeepers with a stick. The chimps could witness the scene, if they so desired, by opening a heavy door and passing to a neighboring room.

A significant number of chimpanzees put in the effort just so they could see the keeper they so disliked being punished. However, when it was the friendly zookeeper’s turn, they refused to watch and even protested vehemently as he was being ‘beaten’.

“Our results demonstrate that six-year-old children and even chimpanzees want to avenge antisocial behaviour and that they feel an urge to watch it,” said Natacha Mendes, scientist at MPI CBS and one of the first authors of the underlying study. “This is where the evolutionary roots of such behaviour originates, a crucial characteristic to manage living in a community.”

Co-lead author Nikolaus Steinbeis, also from MPI CBS, says that while the team can’t definitely say if the children or chimps felt any spite, their behavior suggests that they are “eager to observe how uncooperative members of their community are punished.”

The paper “Preschool children and chimpanzees incur costs to watch punishment of antisocial others” has been published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.


Six-month olds like people who protect the weak, suggesting we’re born with a love for superheroes

Humans may have an innate feel for ‘wrong’ and ‘right,’ new research suggests. The paper describes how infants seem to recognize heroic acts even before reaching verbal ages. This might also help explain the popularity heroes enjoy in cultures throughout the world.


Image credits Andrew Bishop / Flickr.

There’s just something about heroes that make you go all fuzzy inside, isn’t there? From the Spartans in 300 to Batman, we look up to them and root for them through impossible odds and poorly lit alleyways. If you take a moment to think about it, though, those Spartans are doing the exact thing as the Persians — murdering the other guys. Batman himself is pretty shady too, blowing stuff up, kicking people left and right, and generally filling ER rooms to the brim while racking up a huge repairs bill for the city.

So why then do we root for them? Well, there is one thing that sets them apart from the other side — both Batman and the Spartans are doing what they do to defend the weak. According to researchers from Japan, his distinction is enough to turn our brains into groupies — even before we can speak.


A team comprised of researchers from the Kyoto and Tokyo Universities led by Masako Myowa found that infants as young as six months of age — under the age of verbalization — show appreciation for figures who take action to protect others.

The study included 132 infants of various age, but the most interesting findings of the study came from work performed with infants under the age of vocalization. Twenty such infants were shown a series of animations with one sphere-with-eyes chasing and then colliding with a similar sphere. A third actor, “a colored cubic geometric agent with eyes” was shown watching this interaction from a distance. The character was represented in a different color depending on what course of action it would take — one version of the animation has this third party intervene following the bump by placing itself between the spheres, and in the other, he simply leaves without taking any action to defend the victim.

After viewing the animation, the infants were given replicas of the intervening and non-intervening character to chose between. Out of the 20 six-month-old infants, 17 chose the green (interfering) cube over the orange (non-interfering) cube. The researchers controlled for differences in attention length — such as the infants looking more at the green cube than the other — and reported “no significant differences for looking time between animations either for the peripheral [or center] area of interest.”


I’d watch this show.
Image credits Kanakogi et al., (2017), Nature.

So the babies allowed both actors the same level of scrutiny and paid both the same amount of attention, but overwhelmingly chose the interfering cube — suggesting a clear preference for this actor based on his action. Since the researchers were working with babies under the age of vocalization, there was a chance they couldn’t distinguish between an accident and a willing act of aggression. So the team performed the experiment again to see if the infants showed preference to the green cube because he merely stopped an unpleasant event, or because he was taking an active social role in protecting someone.

“It is possible that infants in our study regarded the interaction between the spherical figures in mere physical rather than socially aggressive (animate) terms, and as a result preferred the agent that stopped the negative physical event rather than the aggressive interaction per se,” the team writes.

“[So] we eliminated the perceivable ‘social animacy or agency’ of both the interacting spheres by making them appear as if they (i) had no eyes (rather than having eyes), (ii) were non-self-propelled (rather than self-propelled), and (iii) involved no distortion on contact (rather than showing distortion on contact).”

This second experiment also included 20 (new) 6-month-old infants, and they evenly selected between the two cubes — 10 picks for each of them. Just like with the first experiment, there were “no significant differences for looking times between animations.” The third experiment tested whether the infants were choosing the green cube because “he was social”, as it engaged with the spheres regardless if their interaction was negative or positive — and this wasn’t the case.

In short, it seems that there is an innate sense of justice in humans, which only grows more nuanced and complex as infants grow and understand more about justice. The team’s next goal is to track how this understanding develops over time.

“In this study, six-month-olds didn’t show a preference for intentional help over accidental help, whereas ten-month-olds did,” says Professor Myowa.

The paper “Preverbal infants affirm third-party interventions that protect victims from aggressors” has been published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.



Appointed judges outperform elected ones


Princeton University political scientists have found as part of a recent study looking to assess the performance of state supreme court justices that appointed justices generally bring a higher quality of information to the decision-making process, are less biased and are generally less prone to error as elected justices.

For their study,  Matias Iaryczower, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton, along with colleagues, analyzed some 6,000 state supreme court rulings nationwide between 1995 and 1998. The data gathered from this time frame was then subjected to a theoretical model, which enabled them to reach their conclusion that appointed justices are typically better at their jobs than elected ones.

“Judges may be appointed to state supreme courts, elected in competitive elections or face retention elections. We wanted to see whether these selection methods can be associated with differences in the attributes of the judges themselves and with differences in the ways these judges interact with each other in the court,”  said Iaryczower.

According to the researchers the information quality for justices who don’t face voters is on average 33 percent larger than that of justices who face retention elections at some point after being appointed and 39 percent larger than that of justices who are elected. Now these numbers might seem huge, but remember these are percentages relative to a certain reference point. The relative error justices make during their court rulings is a whole less discrepant.  Justices appointed for life and appointed justices with political reappointment on average have a probability of reaching an incorrect decision of 0.1 percent, while  justices who face retention elections  reach 0.5 percent and justices who are elected 0.3 percent.

What does information quality means for a supreme court justice , however?

“We can think of each judge as endowed with two key components for decision-making, which can vary depending on the characteristics of the case and the individual justice,” Iaryczower said. “The first is a bias parameter, representing the justice’s individual preferences (coming from ideology, a legal position, personal experiences, etc). The second is a parameter measuring the quality of the justice’s information: her ability to go from the facts of the case to a correct decision under the law.”

The present research is part of a large project Iaryczower and colleagues are currently pursuing to establish the level of bias in the current US system of justice – a system that many have labeled as being incredibly biased. To be more exact, they’re looking at the workings of deliberations in appeals courts and the impact of campaign contributions to decision-making in courts.

“A longstanding question in economics and political sciences involves whether public officials should be elected or appointed. A theoretical literature has argued that elections may serve to discipline public officials but may also provide incentives for officials to inappropriately pander to shifts in public opinion,” said Brian Knight,  a professor of economics at Brown University and co-editor of the paper. “The research by Iaryczower, Lewis and Shum provides one of the first efforts to quantify these advantages and disadvantages of elections.”

A few years ago, I wrote a post on how biased justice can be. Then, a study looked at a few hundred parole appeal cases, albeit in Israel, and found that the presiding judges had an extremely different proportion of rulings during a day. In the beginning of the day the chance a prisoner had of a parole being granted was around 65%, only to plummet to nearly 0% towards mid-day – just before lunch-break!

Iaryczower’s findings were reported in the Journal of Public Economics.

source: Princeton University/ image source: PBS

Justice served cold before lunch time: hungry judges less likely to grant parole

Law is a highly demanding field, in which its practitioners are required to have an objective and stoic approach at all times, but a recently published very interesting study shows that court judges can be just as biased as any of us and their rulings, however rational we’d love them to be, are influenced by moods and swings, and … lunch breaks.

Shai Denzeger from Ben Gurion University of the Negev studied 1,112 parole board hearings in Israeli prisons, over a ten month period, to see weather there’s a correlation between the proportion of favorable/negative parole hearings and the order in which they’re presented to the judge during the day. The results of the study can be observed in the graph below which features on the vertical axis the proportion of cases where the judges granted parole, while on the horizontal axis the order in which the cases were heard during the day is shown  – the dotted lines represents the moments of the day in which the judges went for their snack breaks.

If some of you might have been amused at the beginning of the article, then there’s a good chance you’re pretty amazed right now, maybe even scared. Yes, in the beginning of the day the chance a prizoner has of a parole being granted is around 65%, only to plummet to nearly 0% towards mid-day!

The rulings researched in the study were made by eight Jewish-Israeli judges, each with an average of 22 years of judging behind them. Their verdicts represented 40% of all parole requests in the country during the ten months. Every day, each judge considers between 14 and 35 cases, spending around 6 minutes on each decision. They take two food breaks that divide their day into three sessions. All of these details, from the decision to the times of the breaks, are duly recorded.

Jonathan Levav, who led the study, says, “There are no checks about the judges’ decisions because no one has ever documented this tendency before.  Needless to say, I would expect there to be something put into place after this.”

Denzeger’s explination is a simple one: repetitive action leads to intense mental resources depletion and fatigue, which leads to something called “choice overload”. When this happens, basically, we generally tend to choose the default option, in this case the default option is “deny parole”.

Nita Farahany, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University, says, “To me, this study underscores that decision-making is complex and does not occur in a theoretical or formalistic vacuum.” She says that similar studies have found that people from medical residents to air force pilots make more errors when they go for long periods without rest.

“Such studies have helped inform policy changes designed to minimize human errors that arise from lack of sleep, and mental and physical exhaustion,” Farahany says. “That legal decision-makers might also be impacted by mental or physical exhaustion should be unsurprising. Improvements in medicine, military combat, and other critical decision-making contexts have required that attention be paid to the effects of exhaustion. Likewise, improvements in the justice system may likewise require that society acknowledge the effects of biological contributions to legal decision-making.”

Study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.