What is “the Right Thing”?

As children we are taught that we should do the right thing not for any extrinsic reward but because it is the right thing to do. Obviously, what is “right” in a situation depends on many cultural and personal mores and beliefs. But a question that applies across the board is, do you make the choice to A) Help the Victim or B) Punish the offender?
Consider a scenario where you are walking down the street and see a young punk approach a little old lady [LOL] and grab her purse. The little old lady falls to the ground and the guy takes off. Do you do something? If so, do you chase the bad guy or help the little old lady? Nothing is simple. It may make a difference if you are a LOL yourself and not capable of chasing down the bad guy, or you may be with a friend whom you know has medical training so you take off to try to get the LOL’s purse back. So researchers would need to invent a more controlled experiment.
They decided to make up a game called “Dictator”. In the game the dictator is given a certain amount of money and is required to divvy up the money to him/her self and his subjects. In cases where the dictator made an unfair allocation, a third party was instructed to use an “account” given to the third party to either help the victims or use the account to pay to have the dictator’s account reduced to less than it’s original level, but not both. Interestingly, this and other studies found that regardless of whether you chose to help the victim or punish the offender, your altruistic action as a non-involved third party made you feel better.
In this situation, the researchers found that the altruistic action of either giving money to the victim or paying to take money away from the dictator was rewarding. But which action the third party decided upon was based on the person’s level of empathic concern. While I do not pretend to understand the scientific basis of determining what equates to high or low empathic concern, it appears to be something that is able to be measured. The study found that people with low empathic concern prefer punishment of the offender, whereas those with high empathic concern more frequently choose to help the victim.
So whether your idea of doing the right thing is to punish the bad guy or to help the person who was hurt, the bottom line is, do either one, but do something. It will make you feel good.


1 Hu Y, Strang S, Weber B. Helping or punishing strangers: neural correlates of altruistic decisions as third-party and of its relation to empathic concern. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 2015;9:24. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00024.

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