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Monday, October 11, 2021

Good deeds and hard knocks: The effect of past suffering on praise for moral behavior

P. Robbins, F. Alvera, & P. Litton
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 97, November 2021


Are judgments of praise for moral behavior modulated by knowledge of an agent's past suffering at the hands of others, and if so, in what direction? Drawing on multiple lines of research in experimental social psychology, we identify three hypotheses about the psychology of praise — typecasting, handicapping, and non-historicism — each of which supports a different answer to the question above. Typecasting predicts that information about past suffering will augment perceived patiency and thereby diminish perceived agency, making altruistic actions seem less praiseworthy; handicapping predicts that this information will make altruistic actions seem more effortful, and hence more praiseworthy; and non-historicism predicts that judgments of praise will be insensitive to information about an agent's experiential history. We report the results of two studies suggesting that altruistic behavior tends to attract more praise when the experiential history of the agent involves coping with adversity in childhood rather than enjoying prosperity (Study 1, N = 348, p = .03, d = 0.45; Study 2, N = 400, p = .02, d = 0.39), as well as the results of a third study suggesting that altruistic behavior tends to be evaluated more favorably when the experiential history of the agent includes coping with adversity than in the absence of information about the agent's past experience (N = 226, p = .002). This pattern of results, we argue, is more consistent with handicapping than typecasting or non-historicism.

From the Discussion

One possibility is that a history of suffering is perceived as depleting the psychological resources required for acting morally, making it difficult for someone to shift attention from their own needs to the needs of others. This is suggested by the stereotype of people who have suffered hardships in early life, especially at the hands of caregivers, which includes a tendency to be socially anxious, insecure, and withdrawn — a stereotype which may have some basis in fact (Elliott, Cunningham, Linder, Colangelo, & Gross, 2005). A history of suffering, that is, might seem like an obstacle to developing the kind of social mindedness exemplified by acts of altruism and other forms of prosocial behavior, which are typically motivated by feelings of compassion or empathic concern. This is an open empirical question, worthy of investigation not just in connection with handicapping and typecasting (and historicist accounts of praise more generally) but in its own right.

This research may have implications for psychotherapy.