Saintly Sinners and Sinful Saints: Do Perceptions of Contradictory Behavior Amplify Judgments of Moral Blame and Praise?

Studies measuring assignment of blame and praise often use methods that do not capture the complexity of real-world attributions: participants assign responsibility based on a single event. Using hypothetical vignettes, the current studies allowed online participants to judge both single and successive moral events. When evaluating “selfish” outcomes, participants blamed agents who originally behaved selflessly but at the critical moment behaved selfishly similarly to agents who simply behaved selfishly from the outset. Conversely, for “selfless” outcomes, participants judged agents who initially behaved selfishly but at the critical moment behaved selflessly as less praiseworthy than agents who were simply selfless from the outset. These novel findings illustrate that although people may show an outcome bias when judging selfish behavior, they are indeed sensitive to the way in which an outcome occurs when judging selfless behavior. Theoretical implications and future avenues for research are discussed.