The impact of retribution on perception of transgressor by others

Dublin Core


The impact of retribution on perception of transgressor by others


Olivia Wilson




Emotions play a key role in within society, behaviour and human life with moral emotions such as guilt, regret and shame being able to influence individuals’ judgments and actions. For example, a person who experiences guilt will want to fix their wrongdoing that has caused this. There are times where these efforts to repair ones transgression, can lead an individual to self-punish in order to repair bonds with others and reduce negative consequences of the situation. The present study experimentally investigated the effect of self-punishment intensity on perceptions of a transgressor. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions of self-punishment intensity (low, correct and high). Vignettes were manipulated for each condition and presented for participants to read for them to answer questions on their judgments of the transgressor (perceptions of guilt, shame, regret, moral character, and trustworthiness, their willingness to forgive the transgressor, how likely they thought they would reoffend in the future) and rated this on a Likert scale of 0-5. Participants allocated to low self-punishment had more negative perceptions towards the transgressor overall when compared to correct self-punishment. However, this was not found beyond this as no differences were seen for those within the high self-punishment condition


Participants. Participants were recruited through the use of LU Sona system as well as opportunity sampling through use of social media and network platforms accessible. A total of 174 responses were collected via Qualtrics, of those 158 have been successfully completed through to the end whilst 16 have only been started and answered few questions at most. Therefore, the decision has been made to exclude any incomplete attempts. This resulted in a final sample of 158 of which 54 are in the high punishment condition, 52 in low punishment condition and 52 in correct punishment.
Design. This is a one-factor study with 3 levels (self-punishment: Low punishment, correct punishment, and high punishment) between-subjects design. Qualtrics randomly allocated participants to one of the three conditions.
Materials. A short hypothetical vignette was used to describe an event between two individuals; ‘Simon’ the transgressor and his friend, who he steals money from. With each of the punishment conditions, the vignette introduced the scenario with the same starting sentences to create the scene of someone performing a transgression against their friend with feelings of self-directed negative affect presented by the transgressor:
Simon is out with his friends when he noticed that a member of his group has left their wallet unattended. Simon helps himself to the £40 that was in the wallet. His friend eventually realises that the money has been stolen and seems distressed. The next day, Simon feels bad for his actions and confesses to his friend that he took the money.
The final sentence of the vignettes was manipulated for each of the three conditions. The sentence stated the amount of money returned to Simon’s friend, which was either less than originally taken (low punishment, £20), same amount (correct punishment, £40) or more than originally taken (high punishment, £60).
He gives his friend all the money he has in his wallet, which came to £20 (or £40, or
Hypothetical vignettes have been a popular method to explore social actions within research allowing actions to be explored in context to specific situations, people’s judgments, reactions and perceptions of the scenario being described and/or the individual people within the vignette. It allows this all to be clarified in the form of data collection and provides a less personal, and therefore less threatening way of exploring sensitive issues and topics in society (Barter & Renold, 1999; Hughs, 1998; Schoenberg & Ravdal, 2000). Vignettes are a valuable technique for exploring perceptions of situations and have been utilised previously in research on guilt and perceptions of a transgressor post-transgression (McLatchie, 2019; Manstead & Semin, 1981; Dijk, de Jong & Peters, 2009) and so have been utilised in this research of intensity of self-punishment post-transgression.
Empirical research has shown that emotions and perceptions of guilt specifically focuses attention on the behaviour and action that has occurred which has in turn elicited these feelings (Tangney & Dearing, 2002). This is why the vignette in the present study was written with a particular emphasis on presenting the transgressor to be feeling remorse/guilt after failing to adhere to a social standard, being explicitly stated through acceptance of responsibility. This was done through stating that Simon ‘felt bad for his actions’, intentionally presenting to participants that, regardless of the punishment, Simon did know his behaviour was wrong. It can also be seen in this study through the motivations and efforts to recompensate the wrongdoing through his self-punishment and returning of a quantity of money. Absence of this could imply to participants a lack of emotional response, this could have impacted judgments on Simon regardless of the presence of punishment or not.
As stated previously, other emotions can be used synonymously within conversation when referring to guilt, such as self-conscious emotions like regret and shame; it was important to ensure that guilt was specifically being portrayed. McLatchie (2019) ensured this in his study investigating punishment types (no punishment, self-punishment, and other punishment). McLatchie used a vignette that described interpersonal violations as these are primarily associated with guilt than the other emotions. This is because it includes other individuals and not merely directed at the self where the common emotion that would most likely be triggered would be shame instead. Due to this, the present study also used a vignette that described an interpersonal violation of moral and social standards with the last sentence manipulated to present three self-punishment conditions based on varying intensities. These terms are popularly used interchangeably within conversation due to multiple similarities between them (Shen, 2018; Bhushan, Basu & Dutta; 2020; Stearns & Parrott, 2012),
Participants were then asked a series of questions which gathered information on the participants judgments of Simon. Participants were asked to rate the extent of the perceived guilt, shame, and regret of the transgressor as a third-party observer which keeps in line with current research which provides evidence for a strong internal consistency of these measures (McLatchie, 2019). It is also consistent with previous research where the same elements were combined to calculate an overall guilt score. This emphasised the importance of these emotional responses and behaviours that an individual may present when judging overall guilt being experienced by the perpetrator. How much the participant thinks Simon (the transgressor) deserves to be forgiven was also measured. This was done with an adapted version of Zhu et al.’s (2017) way of measuring this and has proved to be effective in prior research related to guilt and self-punishment (McLatchie, 2019). The final questions were – how likely the participants thought Simon would reoffend, and to what extent they thought the punishment performed was sufficient for the transgression committed. All answers were presented and rated on a Likert scale with the question above.
Procedure. Participants were invited to partake in a study aiming to evaluate a ‘social action’. Qualtrics was used to provide the survey to participants where they were asked to read through the vignette prior to moving through the questions and answers which measured their responses. As each question appeared, the vignette remaining at the top of the screen for reference throughout. Answers were presented on a 6-point Likert scale ranging from 0 (“Not at all”) to 5 (“Completely”) which they were required to choose their response through a rating.
Once participants completed this survey, a final section asked participants to provide demographic information with a full debrief. Demographic information included basic information such as the participants age and gender. Additional questions were included in order to gain an insight into the participants experience with situations such as the one described in the vignette and their personal experiences with guilt allowing any influences of the participants character to be seen when analysing results. These include being asked if they have ever had an experience as the protagonist (Simon in this case), someone who has been stolen from, and if they are prone to feelings of guilt.


Lancaster University


Data R AStudio .csv




Anastasija Jumatova


Open (unless stated otherwise)


None (unless stated otherwise)




Data and Text



Tamara Rakic

Project Level




Sample Size

158 participants ( 54 are in the high punishment condition, 52 in low punishment condition and 52 in correct punishment).

Statistical Analysis Type




Olivia Wilson , “The impact of retribution on perception of transgressor by others ,” LUSTRE, accessed April 1, 2023,