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 willingness to punish innocent individuals for actions of somebody else, a behavior that we label scapegoating. We develop a novel experimental paradigm – Punishing the Scapegoat game -- and measure willingness to sacrifice own resources in order to punish others. We study youth in Eastern Slovakia, a region with inter-ethnic tensions between the majority group and Roma minority. Impartial Punisher receives information that Wrongdoer malevolently reduced earned income of an anonymous person from Punisher’s group. We manipulate signals about 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. The observed group biases in punishment 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.