ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2022, Vol. 54 ›› Issue (12): 1548-1561.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2022.01548

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Subjective social class positively predicts altruistic punishment

CHEN Sijing1, YANG Shasha2, WANG Hao1, WAN Fenghua1   

  1. 1School of Economics and Management, Zhejiang University of Science and Technology, Hangzhou 310023, China
    2School of Economics, Shanghai University, Shanghai, 200444, China
  • Published:2022-12-20 Online:2022-09-23


Altruistic punishment means that people privately bear the cost to punish norm violators, although the punishment yields no material gain. The positive effects of altruistic punishment on cooperation and norm maintenance are well documented and the possible mechanisms underlying these effects have also been widely tested. However, an important issue remains underexplored: Does people’s social background influence their altruistic punitive behavior? If yes, how? Across four studies, this article tested the relationship between altruistic punishment and social class, potential psychological mechanisms underlying this relationship, as well as some boundary conditions.
Study 1 used the Chinese general social survey (2013) released by the National Survey Research Center at Renmin University of China to examine the relationship between altruistic punishment and social class. We selected two items as the dependent variables of Study 1 (D13: employees reported environmental pollution at their own cost; D23: employees retaliated against their foreign boss who insulted China). After screening the samples, a total of 4921 (for D13) and 4864 (for D23) valid data were obtained, respectively. The results showed that after controlling for educational attainment and annual income, participants’ subjective social class significantly positively predicts their altruistic punishment (D13: B = 0.07, Wald = 16.70, OR = 1.08, 95% CI [1.04, 1.11], p < 0.001; D23: B = 0.05, Wald = 8.74, OR = 1.06, 95% CI [1.02, 1.09], p = 0.003).
Study 2 was a real-life event-based survey with 450 participants. In Study 2, we distinguished direct altruistic punishment from indirect altruistic punishment and further investigated the differential effects of social class on them. The results revealed a positive effect of subjective social class on direct altruistic punishment (Wald = 8.50, OR = 1.32, 95% CI [1.10, 1.59], p = 0.004), but not on indirect altruistic punishment (Wald = 1.14, OR = 1.10, 95% CI [0.92, 1.33], p = 0.286).
Study 3 was a 2 (social class: low/high) × 2 (punishment cost: low/high) between-participants design, and the main purpose was to demonstrate the moderating role of punishment cost in the process of social class affecting altruistic punishment. A 2 × 2 between-participants ANOVA indicated a significant main effect of social class (F(1, 228) = 6.96, p = 0.009, ηp2 = 0.03), with upper class being more likely to punish violators overall, and a significant main effect of cost (F(1, 228) = 20.09, p < 0.001, ηp2 = 0.08), with participants overall having higher levels of punishment in the low-cost condition; and more importantly, the interaction between the two was also significant (F(1, 228) = 4.90, p = 0.028, ηp2 = 0.02). The results of simple effects analysis were shown in Figure 1. In the low-cost condition, no significant difference was found in punishment between high-class (M = 24.93, SE = 1.33) and low-class participants (M = 24.37, SE = 1.30) (F(1, 228) = 0.09, p = 0.763); while in the high-cost condition, compared to high-class participants (M = 21.93, SE = 1.33), low-class participants (M = 15.52, SE = 1.32) punished significantly less (F(1, 228) = 11.67, p < 0.001).
Based on the survey data, Study 4 (N = 125) proposed a conditional process model with belief in a just world (BJW) as mediator and punishment cost as moderator, hereby providing an explanatory framework for the impact of social class on altruistic punishment. The results of the cross-level mediation model showed that BJW positively predicted altruistic punishment (B = 2.42, SE = 0.76, p = 0.001) and that the predictive effect of the social class remained significant after the inclusion of BJW (B = 1.05, SE = 0.47, p = 0.026). The test of the cross-level moderating effect of the punishment cost revealed a significantly negative interaction term between BJW and the punishment cost (B = −0.90, SE = 0.27, p = 0.001), as well as a significantly positive interaction term between social class and the punishment cost (B = 0.44, SE = 0.14, p = 0.002). Table 1 depicts the direct effect of social class on altruistic punishment, the indirect effect through BWJ, and the total effect, at three cost levels (M ± 1 SD). Taken together, these results demonstrated that social class affects altruistic punishment indirectly mainly through belief in a just world when punishment cost is low, whereas social class directly affects altruistic punishment when punishment cost is high.
To sum up, we have found evidence that upper-class (vs. lower-class) individuals are more willing to engage in altruistic punishment in economic games and real-life contexts, implying that in a modern society increasingly stratified along class lines, people’s social background should not be ignored in the research of altruistic punishment. In addition, the results of this article also prove that on the one hand, altruistic punishment is at least partly a non-strategic sanction, because an important driver that triggers altruistic punishment is to protect their just belief, and on the other hand cost-benefit based considerations are not completely absent in altruistic punishment.

Key words: altruistic punishment, social class, belief in a just world, punishment cost