Health and Medicine

Research finds how people judge bad behaviour isn’t universal

New research from The Australian National University (ANU) shows that when it comes to wrongdoing, an individual’s intentions and mitigating circumstances matter more in some societies than others.

The project examined eight traditional small-scale societies in countries such as Indonesia and Tanzania, and compared them with downtown Los Angeles and rural Ukraine.

Anthropologist and the lead researcher for the Indonesian component of the research project, Dr Geoff Kushnick, said the study tested whether bad behaviour is judged in the same way across all societies.

“We wanted to know if the moral judgements of people in different societies was the same regardless of where you grew up; a product of evolution rather than culture,” he said.

“What we found, however, was that while all of the cultures took mitigating factors into account, the degree to which they did so varied significantly.”

“Factors such as poor mental health or self-defence are taken into account in our own legal system, whereas they’re less likely to be taken into account in non-western cultures.”

He gave the example of a person assaulting someone who they caught abusing a woman.

“In Australia or the US, you could be considered a hero,” he said. “You might even be exonerated in a court of law.”

“But in smaller societies like the Hadza people of north-central Tanzania whose population is less than 1,000, the act of assault is considered almost as bad no matter what your reason for doing it.”

This study is part of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Culture and the Mind’ Project.

The study has been published and can be seen here in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal.

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