Moral Blame and Memory

Dave Munger at Cognitive Daily:

Anton races home at speeds well in excess of the speed limit. He’s rushing to beat his parents home so that he can hide their anniversary present so it will be a surprise. Suddenly, he hits a slick patch and runs his car off the road an into a tree. He’s okay, but the car is totaled and his parent’s surprise anniversary party is ruined.

How much is Anton to blame for the accident? If you had to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, maybe you’d give him a 7. After all, he was just trying to do something special for his parents.

But what if instead of hiding an anniversary present, Anton was rushing home to hide his cocaine stash? Would you now say he’s more to blame for the accident? You might not when the two alternatives are placed side-by-side, but when Mark Alicke told the two versions of this story to different groups, the cocaine group rated Anton as more blameworthy than the anniversary present group.

Alicke’s study provided the foundation for an array of studies on the effects of social evaluations of individuals on apparently unrelated events, and even factual recollections about episodes.

But when a team led by David Pizarro addressed this question, no study had yet shown that unrelated details about a person could literally affect witnesses’ accuracy in recalling that person’s actions.