Vigilantes are known for taking matters into their own hands to informally punish misbehaviour, and a new collaborative study finds they may pose a challenge to businesses and workplaces.
The study, co-authored by UBC Sauder School of Business professor Dr. Karl Aquino (he/him), looks into what makes vigilantes tick.
In this Q&A, Dr. Aquino discusses the study and the impacts of vigilantism on businesses.
What is vigilantism and how did you measure this?
People with a vigilante identity often perceive themselves to be the kind of people who monitor their environment for signs of norm violations.
Our study research team developed a Vigilante Identity Scale (VIS) to assess common behavioral tendencies of those who are likely to seek their own forms of organizational justice in response to social violations.
What are some common traits vigilantes have?
Vigilantes tend to be hypervigilant and, unlike most people, they are willing to take it upon themselves to informally punish others when they have no authority to do so.
We found that people who take on vigilante identities generally have a positive view of themselves despite the fact that they might punish people, and they perceive themselves as morally superior, particularly with regard to their pro-sociality. They also often think a lot about the world and have a have a strong desire to correct what they consider to be the wrong ideas of others. They also like to symbolize their virtue publicly through actions like the clothes they wear, the books they buy, or the organizations they belong to.
Why do vigilantes seek to punish others?
It’s important to point out that people who have this identity aren’t gratuitous punishers. They just act when they think the system won’t do the job.
Previous research shows us that vigilantes tend to emerge when people believe that authorities are failing to ensure organizational justice by not punishing people perceived to be deviants.
This translated over to this study, where we saw findings suggesting that most people are probably reluctant to become vigilantes, but a few may do so if they believe that systems of social control are inadequate or fail to punish wrongdoers. We also found that, of course, not all people who notice a violation of social norm will become a vigilante and punish the violator.
How does vigilantism impact businesses and organizations?
Although vigilantes’ moral convictions can have positive outcomes by correcting authorities’ failures to punish wrongdoers, if their actions are misguided or based on incomplete information then they can unfairly tarnish a business’s reputation or, in some cases, force people out of an organization without due process.
Because people with a vigilante identity routinely look for evidence of wrongdoing, they are more likely to see injustice. The challenge is that not everybody perceives injustice the same way, which can lead to conflicts about how to respond and challenges around what we now call “cancel culture.”
Beyond broader impacts to business, what are the potential risks to workplace culture?
Vigilantism can damage workplace culture. If you think you’re constantly under surveillance for all the things you might do wrong it creates anxiety and fear. Being a vigilante’s target can cause economic, reputational, and psychological harm.
There are reasons why most societies discourage their citizens from taking the law into their own hands. Perhaps organizations need to consider whether this should be a guiding principle in the workplace as well.
This study was a collaboration between co-authors at UBC Sauder, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Otago, Simon Fraser University, York University, the University of Toronto and Singapore Management University.
Interview languages: English