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Friday, July 16, 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.

From the General Discussion

It seems reasonable to think that there would be some benefit to communicating these moral emotions as a signal of character, and to being able to glean information about the character of others from observations of their emotional responses. If a propensity to feel guilt makes it more likely that a person is cooperative and trustworthy, observers would need to discriminate between people who are and are not prone to guilt. Guilt could therefore serve as an effective regulator of moral behavior in others in its role as a reliable signal of good character.  This account is consistent with theoretical accounts of emotional expressions more generally, either in the face, voice, or body, as a route by which observers make inferences about a person’s underlying dispositions (Frank, 1988). Our results suggest that false positive emotional responses specifically may provide an additional, and apparently informative, source of evidence for one’s propensity toward moral emotions and moral behavior.