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Wednesday, July 7, 2021

“False positive” emotions, responsibility, and moral character

Anderson, R. A., et al.
Volume 214, September 2021, 104770


People often feel guilt for accidents—negative events that they did not intend or have any control over. Why might this be the case? Are there reputational benefits to doing so? Across six studies, we find support for the hypothesis that observers expect “false positive” emotions from agents during a moral encounter – emotions that are not normatively appropriate for the situation but still trigger in response to that situation. For example, if a person accidentally spills coffee on someone, most normative accounts of blame would hold that the person is not blameworthy, as the spill was accidental. Self-blame (and the guilt that accompanies it) would thus be an inappropriate response. However, in Studies 1–2 we find that observers rate an agent who feels guilt, compared to an agent who feels no guilt, as a better person, as less blameworthy for the accident, and as less likely to commit moral offenses. These attributions of moral character extend to other moral emotions like gratitude, but not to nonmoral emotions like fear, and are not driven by perceived differences in overall emotionality (Study 3). In Study 4, we demonstrate that agents who feel extremely high levels of inappropriate (false positive) guilt (e.g., agents who experience guilt but are not at all causally linked to the accident) are not perceived as having a better moral character, suggesting that merely feeling guilty is not sufficient to receive a boost in judgments of character. In Study 5, using a trust game design, we find that observers are more willing to trust others who experience false positive guilt compared to those who do not. In Study 6, we find that false positive experiences of guilt may actually be a reliable predictor of underlying moral character: self-reported predicted guilt in response to accidents negatively correlates with higher scores on a psychopathy scale.

General discussion

Collectively, our results support the hypothesis that false positive moral emotions are associated with both judgments of moral character and traits associated with moral character. We consistently found that observers use an agent's false positive experience of moral emotions (e.g., guilt, gratitude) to infer their underlying moral character, their social likability, and to predict both their future emotional responses and their future moral behavior. Specifically, we found that observers judge an agent who experienced “false positive” guilt (in response to an accidental harm) as a more moral person, more likeable, less likely to commit future moral infractions, and more trustworthy than an agent who experienced no guilt. Our results help explain the second “puzzle” regarding guilt for accidental actions (Kamtekar & Nichols, 2019). Specifically, one reason that observers may find an accidental agent less blameworthy, and yet still be wary if the agent does not feel guilt, is that such false positive guilt provides an important indicator of that agent's underlying character.