Familiarity and social ties influence our decision to intervene on behalf of others. 

A few months after I moved to my current neighborhood, I witnessed a driver get out of his car and attack a pedestrian. While I'm still not clear on what sparked the incident, from what I could make out, the pedestrian had walked in front of the man's car at an intersection (not an uncommon occurrence in a pedestrian-friendly D.C. neighborhood).

The incident involved more person-on-property violence than person-on-person violence, but it was nevertheless a gratuitous and frightening overreaction on the part of the driver. A half dozen or so people on the street, myself included, had stopped walking to watch the scene unfold. But none of us did anything. I felt like I could've done something—I thought myself big enough and strong enough—but I stood frozen in place. Just as the Jeep driver's behavior toward the pedestrian seemed to reach a crescendo, a maintenance worker from a nearby apartment building began running toward the vehicle, shouting, "Leave that guy alone!" The Jeep driver whipped his head around, a crazed look on his face, then put his ride in gear and peeled out. 

In the end, my only contribution to the event was giving the Jeep's license plate number to the police. Since then, I've often wondered why I didn't do more. A new study out from the University of Maryland offers an answer. 

The maintenance worker who intervened that morning was what psychologists call a "responsible third party punisher." This term applies to any person who voluntarily intervenes in a conflict in order to punish the offending party for violating community norms. Think Batman, or an older sibling who beat up your bully. The punishment doesn't even have to be physical: It can be as simple as shaming a catty co-worker whose gossip is hurting morale, or calling out a friend for flirting with a mutual friend's mate. All these instances count as third party punishment. 

While the origins of direct punishment—you punch me, I punch you back—are well-known, what drives people who are willing to dole out third party punishment remains a bit of a mystery, says Michele Gelfand, a University of Maryland psychologist. "These conflicts happen all the time among friends, in the workplace, in neighborhoods," Gelfand says. "The key component is that there’s a cost for intervening on someone’s behalf." Because that cost can range from stress to possible violence, Gelfand argues that "it’s extremely puzzling that anyone would do this." 

Perhaps you, dear reader, imagine yourself a third party punisher. And maybe you are! But know this: it's not just about character, or how you were raised. Gelfand, along with University of Maryland computer scientists Dana Nau and Patrick Roos, have developed a model that predicts a person's predisposition for intervening and punishing. And it turns out that without the right environment, we're all reduced to cowardly lions. 

Gelfand et al's model says that having third party punishers in your neighborhood or workplace is dependent largely on "high average strength-of-ties and low mobility." Or put more simply, knowing the people around you and not being likely to leave. The higher the strength of ties and the lower the mobility, the more third party punishment you're likely to see. In these situations, Gelfand's question (why are these people intervening?) has a logical answer: "Punishing responsibly fosters a culture of cooperation in the neighborhood, by signaling that defection is not tolerated."

So what happens if we have low strength of ties and high mobility, which is sometimes the case in melting-pot cities such as D.C.? In highly transient communities where few people know their neighbors, third party punishers are far and few between. "It’s really difficult for responsible third party punishers unless there’s a few of them around a neighborhood," Patrick Roos says. For those of you who consider yourselves white knights, this also means that "a single third party punisher is unlikely to remain one for a very long time." (Unless that third party is, say, Jackie Chan's character from Rumble in the Bronx.) 

While Gelfand et al's study helped me understand why I was so reluctant that day to intervene—I was new to the neighborhood, living there on a short-term lease, and knew no one—Dana Nau explained how the ideal circumstances for third party punishment aren't ideal for everyone. 

"I grew up in a small town in the Midwest," Nau told me. "It was a town where lots of people knew lots of other people. It was a very safe place to live. On the other hand, it was also a little bit stifling. They had their own notions of the right social norm. So what ends up being enforced as the notion of cooperation could be a good, or it could just be an idiosyncratic quality in that population." 

My D.C. neighborhood may be too transient to give rise to a host of third party punishers, but then, I can always call the police. 

Top image: Batman, fictional third party punisher. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

About the Author

Mike Riggs

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at CityLab. 

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