Culture & Society

Kristin Laurin: People Calculate Rewards and Punishments in Different Ways

What is more important: your behavior or your intentions?

February 04, 2015

| by Kristin Laurin


Two feet chained together

How people decide how to reward good people applies equally well to how people decide how to punish bad people. | Reuters/Steve Campbell

Rewards are tricky things to manage. Everyone agrees that people should get the reward they deserve. And everyone — for the most part, anyway — agrees that the reward each “deserves” is proportional to what she contributed. So if you and I write a book together, and you do twice as much work as I do for it, then you would deserve twice as big a share of the profits.

But the abstractness of this principle, which psychologists call equity, is both what makes everyone agree on it and what makes it useless from a practical standpoint. If we try to apply it in any kind of a concrete way, the apparent consensus dissolves. Questions arise: How do we determine how my contribution measures up to yours? Do we use the number of words written as the metric? What if it took me twice as long to write half as many words as you? What if my words are, not to put too fine a point on it, twice as good? What if I have achieved greater fame and glory than you, and the only reason our book is selling so well is that it has my name on it?

Different people calculate equity in vastly different ways. In my research, I’ve tried to figure out what factors determine how people calculate equity. One factor I’ve homed in on is religion.

Religions differ in all kinds of ways, but one of these ways relates to what religious scholars have perhaps foolishly termed orthodoxy and orthopraxy. These words come to us from ancient Greek, via medieval Latin: ortho, meaning “right” or “correct”; doxy, meaning “opinion”; and praxis, meaning “deed” or “action.” An orthodox religion, then, is one that focuses on the correctness of beliefs, whereas an orthopraxic religion is one that focuses on the correctness of behavior. Protestantism is a prototypical example of an orthodox religion: Protestant faiths have relatively few prescribed behaviors or rituals, and instead emphasize each individual’s personal relationship with God. By contrast, Judaism and Hinduism are two prototypically orthopraxic religions: In both these faiths, the dietary rules are far stricter than the rules about what adherents must believe.

To understand how this relates to equity calculations, consider how each of these versions of religion teaches people to make basic judgments. Under religious orthodoxy, the most worthy people have true faith and a healthy relationship with God. If you want to know how good a person is, you need to know what’s going on in his head. In other words, questions of moral right and wrong depend on intangible, unobservable, internal states. By contrast, under religious orthopraxy, the most worthy people adhere to the religion’s rules and participate fully in its rituals. If you want to know how good a person is, you need to know what he does. In other words, questions of moral right and wrong depend on tangible, observable actions.

All of this means that equity calculations will look quite different depending on whether the calculator sees the world through a lens of orthodoxy or a lens of orthopraxy. Orthopraxy dictates that judgments should be informed by tangible, observable products: What did you physically do, and what was the observable outcome of your action? Orthodoxy leaves more room for the intangibles: What was your intention? How hard did you try? How do you feel about the outcome?


We wondered how members of different religious traditions would choose to punish people who engaged in terrible behaviors, either by accident or on purpose.
Kristin Laurin

Along with Jason Plaks, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, I recently published a paper addressing this issue. In it, we focus not on reward, but on its darker sibling—punishment. All of the logic I just outlined about how people decide what is right and how to reward good people applies equally well to how people decide what is wrong and how to punish bad people. Together, we wondered how members of different religious traditions would choose to punish people who engaged in terrible behaviors, either by accident or on purpose. We reasoned that whether you do something on purpose or by accident is an intangible, and that therefore individuals from a more orthodox religious background would pay more attention to this mitigating factor.

Sure enough, across three studies, this is what we found. In one study, we recruited Protestants from the United States and Hindus from India. We told all participants a rather shocking story about a young man, J.G., who killed his uncle. We went on to tell some participants that J.G. acted fully intentionally: He wanted his uncle dead so that he could receive an inheritance, and he ran his uncle down with his car. To other participants, we gave a different version of the story, in which J.G. also wanted his uncle dead, and also hit and killed him with his car, but he did so unintentionally: He meant to hit the brakes, but in his panic he stepped on the gas. Then we asked participants how much they thought J.G. should be blamed and punished.

Not surprisingly, everyone judged the intentional J.G. harshly. Most people would agree that someone who murders a relative in cold blood for financial gain deserves a severe punishment. When it came to the less intentional J.G., though, Protestants were far more lenient than Hindus. Both groups of participants were still somewhat harsh — after all, even the less intentional J.G. wanted his uncle dead — but Protestants gave him a considerable break for having acted unintentionally. Hindus gave him a tiny break for having acted unintentionally, but appeared to feel that the more important factor was the tangible outcome of his behavior. Moreover, we found that the difference between the two religious groups was fully explained by their difference in orthopraxy.

We replicated these effects across two other studies. In ongoing research, I’ve enlisted the help of Arthur Jago, a graduate student here at Stanford, to try to extend these findings to the domain of workplace rewards. So far we have limited our efforts to American participants, but our initial results are promising. We are finding that orthopraxic managers tend to prefer reward systems based on cold, hard results: how much sales revenue an employee has generated, or how many reports she has filed. By contrast, orthodox managers tend to be more interested in reward systems based on less tangible features, like how hard an employee works or how much she cares.

Religious variety has its benefits, to be sure, but our research hints that it can also generate misunderstandings that lead to conflict. That being said, in some of our studies, rather than compare members of different religions, we compared members of the same religion who simply differed on how much emphasis they placed on their religion’s orthopraxic versus orthodox elements. In other words, religious variety — and any ensuing conflict — can exist even within a group of people who, on the surface, share the same faith.

Kristin Laurin is an assistant professor of organizational behavior and the Louise & Claude N. Rosenberg Jr. Faculty Scholar for 2014-2015 at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Religion and Punishment Opposing Influences of Orthopraxy and Orthodoxy on Reactions to Unintentional Acts” was published in Social Psychology & Personality Science.

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