Live Fast, Die Young, Defend Your Status: The Code of Retaliation

At the 2012 Global Empowerment Meeting, Professor Jens Ludwig, Director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, told a story of a typical violent crime in Chicago. In the South Shore neighborhood, on Saturday, June 2, 2012, at about 3pm, two groups of teenagers were “woofing” at each other, with a kid in one group claiming that a kid in the other group stole his bike. As the groups began to separate, one kid pulled out a gun and shot another in the chest. The 16-year-old died shortly afterwards. As Ludwig remarked, the vast majority of violent crime in major US cities, including 73 percent of the homicides in Chicago, stem from altercations of this sort. An argument over something—perhaps something trivial—escalates, and retaliation leads to tragedy.

In an attempt to understand such retaliatory violence, a group of Miami researchers conducted some experiments using tools from game theory. Most recently, in “Life history, code of honor, and emotional responses to inequality in an economic game,” the authors explore how emotional arousal, which has long been linked to aggressive behavior, may be associated with a willingness to endorse the “code of honor.”

The code of honor is characterized by a heightened concern for status and a tendency to endorse violence in response to status threats. Criminologists measure the extent to which individuals endorse the code of honor by eliciting their attitudes toward revenge, forgiveness, and “street code” beliefs, such as “you have to fight to uphold your honor.” From an evolutionary perspective, adherence to the code of honor is thought to have been adaptive in certain environments. When resources are scarce and life is expected to be short and brutal, taking risks and displaying strength may be necessary for survival and reproduction. However, in modern settings, harsh childhood environments can trigger this “live fast, die young” life strategy and lead to maladaptively risk-seeking and violent behavior.

To explore the interaction between the code of honor and emotional reactions to provocation, the authors designed a game: Participants were told they were being grouped with two other participants, each to be randomly assigned a role as the Decision Maker, the Receiver, or the third-party Observer. At their computers, all participants began with five dollars, and then the Decision Maker could either give any portion of his or her money to the Receiver or take any portion of the Receiver’s money away.

In reality, participants were playing the game alone with a computer, which was preprogrammed to act as the Decision Maker. Furthermore, participants were randomly assigned, either as Receivers or as Observers, to a “fair” allocation, in which the computer-programmed Decision Maker took no money from the Receiver, or to an “unfair” allocation, in which the Decision Maker took four dollars from the Receiver.

For the most part, participants acted similarly across conditions regardless of how much they endorsed the code of honor. Receivers, but not Observers, reported feeling anger towards unfair Decision Makers, suggesting that Observers generally did not experience any moralistic anger when witnessing the “unfair” exchange.

Yet participants diverged in their backgrounds and in the severity of envy they felt towards Decision Makers. Male (but not female) participants who reported having harsh childhoods and female (but not male) participants whose perception of police efficacy was low tended to endorse the code of honor. Furthermore, Receivers who strongly endorsed the code of honor reported being significantly more envious of the “unfair” Decision Maker than Receivers who did not. The findings are consistent with the notion that the code of honor is characterized by an obsession with status and resources, while a sense of moralistic justice may not be a significant factor in response to inequality.

From previous work, the authors have evidence that endorsing the code of honor is associated with an increased likelihood of retaliation, but follow-up experiments can further reveal the relationship between the code of honor, emotional arousal, and retaliation. For example, participants may have perceived their randomly assigned roles as being unlucky and the results unequal but nonetheless “fair.” An experiment in which participants receive unequal rewards for the same task may evoke different emotions. Also, the relationship between the code of honor and emotional arousal may become more complex if participants know each other.

Meanwhile, another field of crime research has already shown that retaliatory behavioral patterns can be malleable. A program called “Becoming A Man” (BAM) taught young men from disadvantaged backgrounds the cognitive behavioral skills they needed to rein in their impulses and modify their default responses to provocative situations. The program reduced violent crime arrests by 44 percent. The life strategies that people develop in response to their environments may be destructive, but they need not be permanent.

Article Source: Pedersen, E.J., Forster, D.E., & McCullough, M.E. (2014). Life history, code of honor, and emotional responses to inequality in an economic game. Emotion, 14(5): 920-929

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Shannon White
Shannon White is a staff writer for the Chicago Policy Review. She is interested in data-driven policy and behavioral economics.

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