Citizen Enforcers Take Aim

From The New York Times:

Fair_450 Last month a Georgia woman named DeShan Fishel was driving near a school and saw a Jeep rush past a stop signal on a school bus, clipping a 5-year-old boy. The other driver sped away. Ms. Fishel whipped a U-turn and gave chase. She stayed with the Jeep on surface streets and caught the driver on a highway in Dawson County, Ga., making him pull over. She watched the driver until police officers arrived. “All I could think about was that little kid, getting hit, and this person getting away with it,” Ms. Fishel said at a news conference. “It just really upset me.”

The public urge for punishment that helped delay the passage of Washington’s economic rescue plan is more than a simple case of Wall Street loathing, according to scientists who study the psychology of forgiveness and retaliation. The fury is based in instincts that have had a protective and often stabilizing effect on communities throughout human history. Small, integrated groups in particular often contain members who will stand up and — often at significant risk to themselves — punish cheaters, liars and freeloaders. Scientists debate how common these citizen enforcers are, and whether an urge to punish infractions amounts to an overall gain or loss, given that it is costly for both parties. But recent research suggests that in individuals, the fairness instinct is a highly variable psychological impulse, rising and falling in response to what is happening in the world. And there is strong evidence that it hardens in times of crisis and uncertainty, like the current one.

The catch in this highly sensitive system, most researchers agree, is that it most likely evolved to inoculate small groups against invasive rogues, and not to set right the excesses of a vast and wildly diverse community like the American economy.

More here.