Character  &  Context

Understanding the Role of Offender History in Mitigating Moral Blame Requires New Insights into How People Think About Free Will

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By Michael J. Gill

Ideally, moral blame can be constructive: The target of blame can “get the message”—your conduct is unacceptable—and change accordingly. Yet, unfortunately, blame is often destructive. Specifically, when blame responses are harsh, they can make the situation worse, inflicting unnecessary suffering on the target, intensifying the target’s bad conduct, creating cycles of tit-for-tit retribution between blamer and blamed, and, in extreme cases, motivating acts of inhumanity. As one illustration of this, criminal justice scholars have shown that harsh prison conditions contribute to higher—rather than lower—rates of recidivism (Chen & Shapiro, 2007; Cullen, Jonson, & Nagin, 2011). Treating people harshly does not awaken kindness in them.

Our Blame Lab explores how blame and punishment responses can be tempered or “civilized.” The aim, of course, is not to rid the world of blame altogether but rather to understand how blame reactions can maintain their potential benefits (upholding social norms) while being stripped of their potentially destructive elements (harshness, spite, vindictiveness).

Prior work suggests that blame is tempered when a transgression is seen as unintentional, when the actor is perceived as lacking choice-making capacities (e.g., due to brain damage), or when the act is perceived as justified (e.g., harming a person who was about to harm innocent others). This prior work yields important insights but it does not address the cases that interest us. For example, violent criminals are not typically seen as harming others by accident, as being incapable of making choices, or as harming others for justifiable reasons. Thus, we ask: How can blame be civilized toward those offend intentionally and without justification, and who are perceived as having normal choice-making capacities?

Our recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Gill & Cerce, 2017) explores this question. The core theoretical construct offered there is the historicist narrative, which provides a storied account of the life of a wrongdoer, explaining his acquisition of immoral character in terms of an unfortunate life history.

We propose that the mechanism connecting historicist narratives to blame mitigation is novel and requires recognizing that people utilize two distinct concepts of free will when assessing blameworthiness. One concept of free will is freedom of action, which is the traditional free will concept found in the literature. Freedom of action refers to volitional control over action, or “whether an agent has—at the moment of action—the power to choose among various potential actions (including non-action)” (pg. 363). A second concept of free will, which is our novel contribution, is control of self-formation. Control of self-formation focuses on the enduring moral dispositions of the transgressor (rather than “in the moment” choice-making capacities) and concerns whether the transgressor is truly the origin or architect of those dispositions. Is she the source of her own (dispositional) will?

Across six experiments, we had participants make judgments of offenders who had committed offenses ranging from relatively minor (being intellectually arrogant and dismissive of others) to quite severe (multiple homicides following a history of torturing animals). In all cases, we found that historicist narratives reduced blame. Our experiments also provided precise information about how this happened (i.e., mediation). As we predicted, historicist narratives had no effect on perceived freedom of action: No matter what had happened in the offender’s past, he was perceived as able to make new choices in the present moment. This non-effect is notable because perceived freedom of action is well known as an extremely powerful contributor to blame. By what mechanism, then, did narratives reduce blame? They did so by diminishing perceived control of self-formation: The attitudes, emotions, and predispositions that give rise to the offender’s bad actions were never chosen by him. He “never willed to have the will he has.” Thus, to understand the effectiveness of historicist narratives, it is necessary to develop a richer sense of how everyday people think about free will. Notably, we also assessed desires to punish the transgressor. Interestingly, historicist narratives specifically removed the desire to make the transgressor suffer (e.g., destroy his property, humiliate him in front of others) but did not reduce the desire to pressure or encourage the transgressor toward moral improvement in non-violent ways.

Our results suggest that encouraging people to “think historically” about offenders provides one pathway to preserving the constructive elements of blame while removing its destructive elements. A current priority in the Blame Lab is to develop methodological approaches for studying how and when historicist narratives will be effective (or ineffective) in realistic social settings such interpersonal conflicts, jury deliberations, and interventions to change intergroup attitudes.  


Dr. Michael J. Gill, Psychology, Lehigh University.

My core interest is in the psychology of blame. How is it possible to "civilize" people's blame reactions, reducing their impulse to respond in spiteful, vengeful, and potentially inhumane ways to the bad deeds of others? Please visit my lab website for more details: Blame Lab (BLAB): http://blamelab-gill.blogspot.com.
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