What is the optimal amount of pro-social preferences and empathy in a violent organization? Whatever their mission may be, militias put their combatants and officials in a position where they can use threats of violence on civilians for private gain. In this study, we examine the role that empathy and self-interest play when active militia combatants consider whether to steal from and abuse civilians. Based on a relationship with a large militia, we answer this question by randomly assigning new combatants, shortly after they join the group, to one of three possible treatments. These psychological and economic interventions have been designed to train empathy, correct misperceptions about the private costs of abusing civilians, or to reduce the economic benefits of civilian abuse.
At the same time, combatants are officials of a nascent state organization, the militia itself. They collect taxes and enforce the law. It is when fulfilling these duties that they may abuse their position and take advantage of civilians - for instance, by threatening civilians in exchange for payment. Although promoting empathy may help reduce abuses of position, it may by the same mechanism interfere with the simple compliance of combatants with the rules of their position, which have been designed to fulfill the militia's mission of defending territorial sovereignty. For instance, feeling the pain of civilians when collecting taxes or enforcing the law may lead to greater leniency. Leniency would in turn diminish the organization's ability to finance its operations and to maintain social order. That is, empathy could be the basis of corruption. There is evidence for this concern – operationally, the militia deploys combatants away from their family out of concern that combatants who act as officials of the “militia state" near their communities will be more easily corrupted. This is the same reason why states agencies with staff in far locations regularly relocate officials – out of the fear that they may start developing relationships and thus their incentives become misaligned with the organizational mission. That is, the optimal amount of empathy that an organization must promote depends on the effect of empathy on the officials' tendency to engage in corruption, and on the organizational and social costs of low empathy.
The experiment is thus designed to analyze the tradeoff between fulfilling the mission (which requires taking actions that may be painful to take) vs. empathizing with civilians (which may come at the cost of sacrificing the mission, and thus corruption, but have the benefit of diminishing the risk of civilian abuse, another form of corruption).