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Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Action and inaction in moral judgments and decisions: ‎Meta-analysis of Omission-Bias omission-commission asymmetries

Jamison, J., Yay, T., & Feldman, G.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 89, July 2020, 103977


Omission bias is the preference for harm caused through omissions over harm caused through commissions. In a pre-registered experiment (N = 313), we successfully replicated an experiment from Spranca, Minsk, and Baron (1991), considered a classic demonstration of the omission bias, examining generalizability to a between-subject design with extensions examining causality, intent, and regret. Participants in the harm through commission condition(s) rated harm as more immoral and attributed higher responsibility compared to participants in the harm through omission condition (d = 0.45 to 0.47 and d = 0.40 to 0.53). An omission-commission asymmetry was also found for perceptions of causality and intent, in that commissions were attributed stronger action-outcome links and higher intentionality (d = 0.21 to 0.58). The effect for regret was opposite from the classic findings on the action-effect, with higher regret for inaction over action (d = −0.26 to −0.19). Overall, higher perceived causality and intent were associated with higher attributed immorality and responsibility, and with lower perceived regret.

From the Discussion

Regret: Deviation from the action-effect 

The classic action-effect (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982) findings were that actions leading to a negative outcome are regretted more than inactions leading to the same negative outcomes. We added a regret measure to examine whether the action-effect findings would extend to situations of morality involving intended harmful behavior. Our findings were opposite to the expected action-effect omission-commission asymmetry with participants rating omissions as more regretted than commissions (d = 0.18 to 0.26).  

One explanation for this surprising finding may be an intermingling of the perception of an actors’ regret for their behavior with their regret for the outcome. In typical action-effect scenarios, actors behave in a way that is morally neutral but are faced with an outcome that deviates from expectations, such as losing money over an investment. In this study’s omission bias scenarios, the actors behaved immorally to harm others for personal or interpersonal gain, and then are faced with an outcome that deviates from expectation. We hypothesized that participants would perceive actors as being more regretful for taking action that would immorally harm another person rather than allowing that harm through inaction. Yet it is plausible that participants were focused on the regret that actors would feel for not taking more direct action towards their goal of personal or interpersonal gain.  

Another possible explanation for the regret finding is the side-taking hypothesis (DeScioli, 2016; Descoli & Kurzban, 2013). This states that group members side against a wrongdoer who has performed an action that is perceived morally wrong by also attributing lack of remorse or regret. The negative relationship observed between the positive characteristic of regret and the negative characteristics of immorality, causality, and intentionality is in support of this explanation. Future research may be able to explore the true mechanisms of regret in such scenarios.