November 2013 Bar Bulletin
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November 2013 Bar Bulletin

Mob Justice as Viewed through Two Western Classics

By Robert W. Zierman


Some three years ago, The Economist offered its readers an intriguing psychology article entitled "Too Good to Live." Its subtitle: "People hate generosity as much as they hate mean-spiritedness."

The Economist article explains the findings of a study by Dr. Craig Parks of Washington State University and Dr. Asako Stone of the Desert Research Institute in Nevada. Together, they constructed an experiment where undergraduates were asked to play a game with three other students via a computer network.

Unbeknownst to them, the volunteers were actually playing against separately programmed computers. The additional mechanics of the game are best described by the article itself:

Participants, both real and virtual, were given ten points in each round of the game. They could keep these, or put some or all of them into a kitty. The incentive for putting points in the kitty was that their value was thus doubled. The participant was then allowed to withdraw up to a quarter of the points contributed by the other four into his own personal bank, while the other four "players" did likewise. The incentive to take less than a quarter was that when the game ended, after a number of rounds unknown to the participants, a bonus would be given to each player if the kitty exceeded a certain threshold, also unspecified. When the game was over the points were converted into lottery tickets for meals.

The trick was that three of the four fake players contributed reasonably to the kitty and took only a fair share, while the fourth did not. Sometimes this maverick behaved greedily, because the experiment had been designed to study the expected ostracism of cheats. As a control, though, the maverick was sometimes programmed to behave in an unusually generous way.1

Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that the volunteers indicated not only a disinterest in again playing with the "cheats," they also did not want to play again with the "selfless."

Further experimentation found that the reason why the selfless also were not considered worthwhile for future play was because "people were valuing their own reputations in the eyes of the other players as much as the practical gain from the game, and felt that in comparison with the selfless individual they were being found wanting."

To continue this examination of human nature, let's review the film "High Noon." Released in 1952 during the second round of McCarthy's Red Scare, the principal character, Marshal Will Kane (played by an aging Gary Cooper), is on the very last day of his job. It is roughly 10:40 in the morning. He has just married a young, blonde, violence-abhorring Quaker (played by Grace Kelly), a woman who has persuaded him to become a shopkeeper in another town rather than continue to risk his life as a law man.

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