June 25th, 2019
"Scapegoating: Experimental Evidence"
What are the underlying mechanisms behind contagion of inter-group harm among masses? We explore how group identity shapes the willingness to engage in scapegoating, i.e. to punish innocent individuals for the actions of somebody else. We develop a novel experimental paradigm – the Scapegoat Punishing game – implemented among youth in Eastern Slovakia, a region with inter-ethnic tensions between the majority group and the Roma minority. An impartial Punisher receives information that a Wrongdoer malevolently reduced the earned income of an anonymous person from the Punisher’s group. We manipulate signals about the ethnicity of the Scapegoat, a completely innocent person, and the Wrongdoer. We find strong biases in punishment. First, people punish more severely Wrongdoers from an out-group, as compared to in-group members, for the same misbehavior. Second, a non-negligible fraction of subjects punish Scapegoats for actions of Wrongdoers. Such scapegoating is twice as large for Roma Scapegoats as compared to Scapegoats from the majority group. This magnified tendency to punish the minority Scapegoats is not driven by collective punishment or unconditional hate against Roma. These behavioral phenomena can help to explain why harmful behavior against minorities can easily spread among masses, and suggest that social problems within the majority group can trigger scapegoating targeting weaker groups.