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Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The Shape of Blame: How statistical norms impact judgments of blame and praise

Bostyn, D. H., & Knobe, J. (2020, April 24). 


For many types of behaviors, whether a specific instance of that behavior is either blame or praiseworthy depends on how much of the behavior is done or how people go about doing it. For instance, for a behavior such as “replying quickly to emails”, whether a specific reply is blame or praiseworthy will depend on the timeliness of that reply. Such behaviors lie on a continuum in which part of the continuum is praiseworthy (replying quickly) and another part of the continuum is blameworthy (replying late). As praise shifts towards blame along such behavioral continua, the resulting blame-praise curve must have a specific shape. A number of questions therefore arise. What determines the shape of that curve? And what determines “the neutral point”, i.e., the point along a behavioral continuum at which people neither blame nor praise? Seven studies explore these issues, focusing specifically on the impact of statistical information, and provide evidence for a hypothesis we call the “asymmetric frequency hypothesis.”

From the Discussion

Asymmetric frequency and moral cognition

The results obtained here appear to support the asymmetric frequency hypothesis. So far, we have summarized this hypothesis as “People tend perceive frequent behaviors as not blameworthy.” But how exactly is this hypothesis best understood?Importantly, the asymmetric frequency effect does not imply that whenever a behavior becomes more frequent, the associated moral judgment will shift towards the neutral. Behaviors that are considered to be praiseworthy do not appear to become more neutral simply because they become more frequent. The effect of frequency only appears to occur when a behavior is blameworthy, which is why we dubbed it an asymmetric effect.An enlightening historical example in this regard is perhaps the “gay revolution” (Faderman, 2015). As knowledge of the rate of homosexuality has spread across society and people have become more familiar with homosexuality within their own communities, moral norms surrounding homosexuality have shifted from hostility to increasing acceptance (Gallup 2019). Crucially, however, those who already lauded others for having a loving homosexual relation did not shift their judgment towards neutral indifference over the same time period. While frequency mitigates blameworthiness, it does not cause a general shift towards neutrality. Even when everyone does the right thing, it does not lose its moral shine.