Why do we punish someone? Is it to set an example or to maintain discipline in a society which is torn asunder by violence? It a fascinating behavioral question and a vital one in a country like US which is one of the few which still does not abhor capital punishment. We tend to see punishment as something which has been meted out by the State and not as individual choices. A new brain imaging study which was detailed by Neuroscience adds a new and interesting aspect to our understanding about the neuroscience of human punishment.
The study involved the analysis of the Brain of 30 participants who were made to listen to a series about certain protagonist named John brought harm to either Steve or Mary. The stories were told in two different versions – In the first version the details of harm done to Mary was described in macabre details and in a particularly gruesome manner. In the second story the details were given in a straightforward and less grisly manner. In some versions the story was revealed in a way which implied that John was fully at fault while in some versions it was made to look like an accident. The participants were then asked to detail the quantum of punishment which they would give to John for his deeds.
There were two remarkable findings. When the participant was described about the carnage in a graphic and gruesome manner, greater was the punishment. This brings into fore the lacunas in the present legal system- In theory the same Judge could give a convict ‘A’ a more severe sentence if the details of the crime is available in a more macabre form due to the presence of photos or videos as compared to B who gets off with a lighter sentence since there is a paucity of photos or they are of less macabre nature.
However in cases where the harm was accidental, the higher level of punishment was applied only when the participants of the study were convinced that the harm caused was intentional. However when they considered the harm to be unintentional, the way the scene was described had very little effect on the quantum of punishment meted out.