Who’s to Blame?

Although bullies, thieves, and swindlers typically draw our scorn, research suggests that the fault we assign in crimes, accidents, and altercations is far more nuanced than we realize. In the symposium “Understanding Blame and Compassion for Transgressors and Victims,” psychological scientists presented new findings about how people parse out blame — and compassion — in various situations.

Janice Nadler, a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, shared findings about the ways a transgressor’s minor character flaws can harden our judgments about that individual, even when the flaws have little or nothing to do with the offense at hand.

In one experiment, Nadler and colleagues recruited a group of adults to read variations of a vignette involving “Frank,” who works at a Colorado ski resort. Some participants read a version of the story in which Frank is a model employee. Others read about him as lazy and unreliable, and a third group read about him in a neutral context.

In the vignette, Frank loses control of a campfire and causes a forest fire. A helicopter dispatched to fight the fire crashes, killing one of the firefighters on board. The participants were asked to rate the extent to which Frank caused that death as well as how intentional he was in causing the fatal crash. Participants generally rated the negative version of Frank, compared with the positive and neutral versions, as more culpable, intentional, and blameworthy.

Elizabeth Mullen of San Jose State University has studied how individuals’ sense of power influences their preference for compensating victims of wrongdoing versus punishing offenders. Among the studies she discussed was an experiment in which she asked volunteers questions designed to measure their sense of personal influence and control. She then had them read a vignette about a construction worker who parked his trailer on a steep alleyway near his home. In the story, the trailer rolls down the alleyway and hits a neighbor’s tool shed, causing $800 in damages.

After reading the vignette, the study participants rated the fairness of punishing the construction worker versus compensating the victim. Results showed that people who manifested a low sense of personal power in the first part of the experiment preferred to punish the worker, whereas those with a strong sense of power preferred compensating the owner of the shed.

Lehigh University researcher Michael Gill’s studies show that viewing a perpetrator’s actions through the lens of a historic narrative (i.e., a troubled life history) can temper our moral judgment of that individual.

Gill has conducted experiments in which he invites participants to read a description of “James,” an office bully. Some of those participants also read a narrative about how James became so mean. Gill has found that the participants who read the historic narrative place less blame on James for his behavior and also are less likely to endorse any kind of spiteful retribution on him (e.g., deliberately destroying his laptop). Nevertheless, those who read that narrative show no decrease in their support for pressuring or encouraging James to behave better. Gill said the effect of narratives does not depend on perceptions that the offender has suffered (e.g., abuse);  rather, the effect depends on whether the narrative provides a compelling explanation for the offender’s character deficiencies, regardless of the degree of suffering in the narrative.

Research presented by Yael Granot of New York University focused on how visual attention to evidence influences people’s legal judgments of outgroup altercations. In one study, she and her colleagues measured the extent to which participants identified with police and then showed them real dashboard camera footage of physical fights between an officer and civilian. With the help of eye-tracking technology, the researchers measured the number of times each participant looked at the officer. The data showed that those who identified only weakly with the police opted to punish the officer more relative to those who strongly identified with police, but only among individuals who watched the officer frequently. Also, the more attention paid to the officer exaggerated the differences in suggested punishment between people who weakly identified with police and those who strongly identified with them.

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