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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Better the Two Devils You Know, Than the One You Don’t: Predictability Influences Moral Judgments of Immoral Actors

Walker, A. C.,  et al. 
(2020, March 24).


Across six studies (N = 2,646), we demonstrate the role that perceptions of predictability play in judgments of moral character, finding that people demonstrate a moral preference for more predictable immoral actors. Participants judged agents performing an immoral action (e.g., assault) for an unintelligible reason as less predictable and less moral than agents performing the same immoral action, along with an additional immoral action (e.g., theft), for a well-understood immoral reason (Studies 1-4). Additionally, agents performing an immoral action for an unintelligible reason were judged as less predictable and less moral compared to agents performing the same immoral act for an unstated reason (Studies 3-5). This moral preference persisted when participants viewed video footage of each agent’s immoral action (Study 5). Finally, agents performing immoral actions in an unusual way were judged as less predictable and less moral than those performing the same actions in a more common manner (Study 6). The present research demonstrates how immoral actions performed without a clear motive or in an unpredictable way are perceived to be especially indicative of poor moral character. In revealing peoples’ moral preference for predictable immoral actors, we propose that perceptions of predictability play an important, yet overlooked, role in judgments of moral character. Furthermore, we propose that predictability influences judgments of moral character for its ultimate role in reducing social uncertainty and facilitating cooperation with trustworthy individuals and discuss how these findings may be accommodated by person-centered theories of moral judgment and theories of morality-as-cooperation.

From the Discussion

From traditional act-based perspectives (e.g., deontology and utilitarianism; Kant, 1785/1959; Mill, 1861/1998) this moral preference may appear puzzling, as participants judged actors causing more harm and violating more moral rules as more moral. Nevertheless, recent work suggests that people view actions not as the endpoint of moral evaluation, but as a source of information for assessing the moral character of those who perform them(Tannenbaum et al., 2011; Uhlmannet al., 2013). Fromthis person-centered perspective(Pizarro & Tannenbaum, 2011; Uhlmann et al., 2015), a moral preference for more predictable immoral actors can be understood as participants judging the same immoral action (e.g., assault) as more indicative of negative character traits (e.g., a lack of empathy)when performed without an intelligible motive. That is, a person assaulting a stranger seemingly without reason or in an unusual manner (e.g., with a frozen fish) may be viewed as a more inherently unstable, violent, and immoral person compared to an individual performing an identical assault for a well-understood reason (e.g., to escape punishment for a crime in-progress). Such negative character assessments may lead unpredictable immoral actors to be considered a greater risk for causing future harms of uncertain severity to potentially random victims. Consistent with these claims, past work has shown that people judge those performing harmless-but-offensive acts (e.g., masturbating inside a dead chicken), as not only possessing more negative character traits compared to others performing more harmful acts (e.g., theft), but also as likely to engage in more harmful actions in the future(Chakroff et al., 2017; Uhlmann& Zhu, 2014).