Menus Subscribe Search

Should We Let Violinists’ Bad Behavior Slide?

• June 25, 2012 • 9:12 AM

Would you vote for a musician who was clearly better than her competitor, but also behaved immorally?

Imagine, for a moment, you’re a judge at a music competition. You learn that a highly promising violinist has been sabotaging her competitors’ performances. Do you punish her for this behavior?

Surprising new research from Switzerland suggests the answer may depend upon your line of work.

“People turn out to be choosy with respect to the (ethical) norms they are willing to enforce in particular circumstances,” writes a research team led by Christine Clavien of the University of Lausanne’s Department of Ecology and Evolution.

Its study, published in the online journal PLoS One, provides limited support for the notion that humans are inherently inclined to punish others who violate an established code of conduct—even if they’re not directly affected by the misbehavior in question. According to some evolutionary theorists, this impulse reflects the fact that societies that keep transgressors in line are more likely to thrive.

But the research also suggests that punishing rule-breakers is far from a universal impulse. At least in this study, it manifested in counterintuitive ways, with teachers-in-training being the most likely to punish the badly behaving musician, and police recruits the least.

The experiment featured three groups of students: 66 in training to be schoolteachers (they ranged in age from 18 to 35), 109 taking preparatory classes to become police officers (ages 19 to 43), and 122 high schoolers (ages 14 to 18). Sitting at a computer and wearing headphones, each participant watched videos of two professional female violinists performing an excerpt from a Mozart violin concerto.

They were told the musicians were in a competition, and the winner would be awarded a coveted recording contract. “By design,” the researchers write, “one violinist’s musical performance was better, according to professional standards, than the other.”

After watching the performances, half the participants were given positive information about both players’ personal behavior. For the other half, “the more talented violinist was described as morally disrespectful,” the researchers write. Specifically, they were told by one of her professors that she mistuned her fellow students’ instruments and sabotaged their scores just before concerts.

With this information in mind, all participants then voted for the “one violinist that they considered worthy of career advancement.” The researchers found the accusations of immoral conduct cost the miscreant violinist votes, but this effect was not consistent across the board.

Of the three groups, the future teachers were by far the most likely to punish the perpetrator. Among teachers-in-training who heard good things about both, over 80 percent chose the clearly superior player. But those who learned about her misbehavior split their votes just about evenly, with a significant number voting against her even though they realized she was the superior musician.

In contrast, learning of her misbehavior had almost no effect on how the high school students and prospective police officers voted. For them, news of her immoral actions decreased support by only about 2.5 percent.

On the surface, this is somewhat surprising; one might expect future law-enforcement officials to be particularly sensitive to rule-breaking behavior. But then, the researchers note, the specific infractions mentioned here “may be more relevant for teachers” than for peace officers, since no actual laws were broken.

While it might make sense for a cop to let a misbehaving youngster off with a warning, “It is strategically advantageous for teachers to be able to punish undisciplined students, so as to discourage them from disrupting the class atmosphere in the future,” Clavien and her colleagues note.

So while the participating prospective teachers weren’t personally hurt by the violinist’s behavior, they could easily imagine themselves dealing with a similar situation, and were thus more likely to punish such disruptive activity. We may conceive of morality as a set of relatively rigid rules, but when it comes to actual enforcement, context matters—a lot.

It all offers fodder for a new hybrid genre of reality TV. Anyone for American Idol meets Judge Judy?

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.