How to Get away with Murder?

Avoiding liability is profitable – potentially very profitable.  The ability to escape blame offers decision makers opportunities to enact policies that are morally reprehensible or costly for others.  Think about the executive committee of a firm (their actions affect shareholders and consumers), a governing coalition (voters are affected by their decisions), or members of a gang (their choices determine the pain inflicted on their victims).

In all of these examples the individual decision-makers in the group can face retributions for their choices.  Individual gang members can be tried by juries; parties in a coalition can be booted out by voters; and the executives of a firm can be fired by shareholders.  Knowing how these affected “audiences” (juries, voters or shareholders) punish individuals in a collective decision making group can be very valuable information for individual decision makers.  If they know they can avoid responsibility, then parties in a coalition are more likely to support policies that are unpopular with the voters; if individual gang members realize they can avoid punishment by a jury this may embolden their criminal actions; and if one of the officers of a firm knows they can take questionable actions with impunity they are more likely to do so.

My recent American Journal of Political Science article, “Responsibility Attribution for Collective Decision Makers” with co-authors Randy Stevenson and Wojtek Przepiorka, identifies the decision makers in these groups who are most likely to be punished and who can avoid retribution.

We conduct experiments with University of Oxford undergraduate students.   In each experiment, five of the students in the lab are randomly assigned to be collective decision makers and the remaining twenty students are the recipients of these decisions.  The decision makers vote on a proposal as to how 25£ are to be shared between themselves and the recipients.  We varied the voting power of the different decision makers – for example in one case the vote of one of the decision makers counted for 51 percent while the other four had varying vote shares summing to 49 percent.   The proposal with the greatest number of votes was implemented. After the vote recipients we able to punish each decision maker with deduction points.  The chosen punishments tell us precisely what “rules of thumb” recipients use for attributing responsibility to individual decision makers in a collective decision making group.

The results are surprising! Our initial hunch was that people would allocate punishment according to the voting power of each decision maker – more powerful decision makers should receive more serious punishments.   But this doesn’t seem to be the way people attribute blame for collective decisions.  We also thought that it might be the case that recipients of these decisions would punish the veto player (more) – that is the single decision maker who had a majority of the votes.   Surprisingly, individuals do not disproportionately punish veto players.

Our results show that the most powerful decision makers attract most of the blame and are disproportionately punished.  But the big surprise to us was that punishment is primarily focused on the person proposing the policy.  The decision-maker who proposed an allocation, that in turn received a majority, was heavily punished by the subjects in our experiment.  If you have proposal power in a collective decision-making body then you are most certainly going to attract most of the blame.  It will also be difficult to shirk responsibility if you are the largest party.  Decision makers WITHOUT agenda setting powers can avoid punishment for collective decisions.  And NOT having the most votes further contributes to a decision maker’s ability to avoid blame.

If you are a member of one of the infamous MS-13 gangs and commit a serious felony, here are a couple of tips for trial preparation: convince the jury that each member of the gang contributed equally to the ultimate decision to commit the crime; at a minimum you need to convince jurors that you did not have the largest say in the final decision; and, most importantly, convince the jury that you did not propose the criminal act in question.


Political parties make similar calculations.  Given the opportunity we expect them to make decisions that are in their self-interest but that have negative consequences for the public.  And we expect this rent seeking behaviour to be exaggerated when they carry no negative electoral consequences.  Again we can give some advice on when rent-seeking activities will likely go unpunished by the electorate.  Minority coalition governments create optimal opportunities for some parties to maximize rent-seeking while avoiding any significant electoral cost.  A small party that is neither the formateur (unlikely) nor the Prime Ministerial (also unlikely) party but is pivotal to the survival of the minority coalition government (frequently the case) is nicely positioned to extract rents without being punished.  Our results suggest that much of the blame for rent seeking will be accorded the agenda setter – and our intuition is that voters associated the Prime Ministerial party as having that proposal power.  The largest party in the coalition will also attract some of the blame for rent seeking.  The small party with veto power, according to our experimental results, will attract little of the blame.  Expect these small parties with a veto over the tenure of a minority coalition government to advocate electorally unpopular policies because our experimental results suggest voters will not blame them.


Our experimental evidence suggests that punishment can be avoided when group decision makers are NOT agenda setters and do NOT have the biggest voice (or vote) in the collective outcome.   But how unethical or anti-social will individuals become if they anticipate not being held responsible?   Will political parties in a coalition extort outrageous rents if they know the voters will not hold them responsible?  Or will a gang member participate in committing murder if they suspect that other members of the gang will be prosecuted?  Recent controversial experiments by Falk and Szech suggest that avoiding responsibility can lead to very unethical behavior.   Opportunities to diffuse blame lead their subjects to allow rats to be killed for relatively low monetary gains.   The next phase of our research will explore the extent to which individual decision makers in collective decision making bodies try to “get away with murder” when they know they can avoid responsible.

By  Raymond Duch, Nuffield College University of Oxford

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.