Cognitive Foundations of Impartial Punitive Decision Making in Organizations: Attribution and Abstraction

Gijs Houwelingen, Marius Dijke, D (David) De Cremer, A Van Hiel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Web of Science)


Partial decision making about disciplinary responses to misbehavior is generally considered unfair and undermines the effectiveness of punishment. Nonetheless, organizational actors often struggle to remain impartial in situations that call for punishment. Impartiality appears specifically hard to obtain when some element of the transgression reflects badly upon the punisher themselves, for instance, when in the past the punisher has benefited from the misbehavior, even if just derivatively. In this paper, we argue that in such cases, punishers tend to defensively attribute causes of the transgression to the circumstances in order to protect their own self-image, thus leading them to relatively lenient punishments. However, we also suggest that psychological impartiality can be obtained through cognitive abstraction. An abstract understanding (high-level construal) of the punitive situation puts the focus squarely on the gist of the situation and makes circumstantial details less likely to be cognitively available. This hinders defensive circumstantial attribution. We show in a field study and an experiment that partiality in making decisions about punishments occurs under conditions of low-level (i.e., concrete) construal, whereas impartiality is facilitated by high-level (i.e., abstract) construal.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Organizational Behavior
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

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© 2020 The Authors. Journal of Organizational Behavior published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


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