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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Moral self-judgment is stronger for future than past actions

Sjåstad, H. & Baumeister, R.F.
Motiv Emot (2019).
https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-019-09768-8

Abstract

When, if ever, would a person want to be held responsible for his or her choices? Across four studies (N = 915), people favored more extreme rewards and punishments for their future than their past actions. This included thinking that they should receive more blame and punishment for future misdeeds than for past ones, and more credit and reward for future good deeds than for past ones. The tendency to moralize the future more than the past was mediated by anticipating (one’s own) emotional reactions and concern about one’s reputation, which was stronger in the future as well. The findings fit the pragmatic view that people moralize the future partly to guide their choices and actions, such as by increasing their motivation to restrain selfish impulses and build long-term cooperative relationships with others. People typically believe that the future is open and changeable, while the past is not. We conclude that the psychology of moral accountability has a strong future component.

Here is a snip from Concluding Remarks

A recent article by Uhlmann, Pizarro, and Diermeier (2015) proposed an important shift in the foundation of moral psychology. Whereas most research has focused on how people judge moral actions, Uhlmann et al. proposed that the primary, focal purpose is to judge persons. They suggested that this has a prospective dimension: Ultimately, the pragmatic goal is to know whom one can cooperate with, rely on, and otherwise trust in the future. Judging past actions is a means toward predicting the future, with the focus on individual persons.

The present findings fit well with and even extend that analysis. The orientation toward the future is not limited to judging and predicting the moral character of others but also extends to oneself. If one functional purpose of morality is to promote group cohesion and cooperation in the future, people apparently think that part of that involves raising expectations and standards for their own future behavior as well.

The pre-print can be found here.

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