Blaming the Hero

Blaming the Hero

Victims are much more likely to be excused for bad behavior than heroes.


How to evade blame. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

An accused criminal may be better off painting himself as a victim—of poverty or abuse, for example—than as a good person who made a mistake. This according to University of Maryland psychologist Kurt Gray. He and his colleagues gave volunteers fictional stories about people behaving badly. Some of the characters had been victimized in the past, while others had a history of good deeds.

And those who were cast as heroes, those who had done a bunch of good deeds in the past—not only weren't they assigned less blame than a neutral person, but oftentimes they were assigned more blame.

The victims, on the other hand, were blamed the least, even though their past hardship was unrelated to their current offense. Given the findings, Gray says it makes sense that public figures often play the victim when they're caught doing something wrong. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Despite the old saying "justice is blind," our sense of justice depends on many subjective and emotional factors, and can't easily be reduced to a consistent set of rules. Furthermore, it's relatively easy to make a judgment against an action—for example, that people shouldn't steal—but when it comes to holding a particular thief accountable, we may blame some more than others for committing the exact same crime.

Gray's research looks at this issue of personal blame, and asks whether a person's past suffering or good deeds can affect how much we blame them for wrongdoing. One could argue that either could help the accused. We tend to be sympathetic towards people who have suffered in the past, and we also know that victims of certain crimes, like sexual abuse, are more likely to commit similar crimes themselves. We can also imagine that a person who has spent a lifetime doing good for others can be excused for an occasional, out-of-character moral failure.

In his experiment, Gray presented volunteers with fictional stories about people doing bad things. These stories were accompanied by information about the wrongdoer's background. In some cases, the perpetrator had done a lot of good things, like volunteering for charities. In others, the wrongdoer had been victimized themselves in the past—but their past suffering was unrelated to their present crime. Still other stories contained neutral information about the perpetrator—for example, that they had once worked at a hardware store—which didn't have any moral implications one way or another.

After hearing the stories, the volunteers had to decide how responsible the perpetrator was for his or her crimes. As you might expect, people who had been victims in the past, even of completely unrelated wrongs, were assigned less blame than people with neutral backgrounds. But surprisingly, people who had done good deeds in the past were blamed as much or more than the neutral people. 

Why? One possibility is that when we hear that a person has done a lot of good, we expect them to know better than to do something bad. As a result, we hold them even more accountable than an average person for slipping up. Gray also believes that people don't see a world divided between heroes and villains, so much as between people who act and people who are acted upon. In that sense, a hero and a villain are both powerful people who affect others, and it's pretty easy for a hero to be recategorized as a villain based on a single action. On the other hand, victims may be perceived as relatively powerless, not just against the world but against themselves. Therefore, we may hold them somewhat less responsible for antisocial behavior.

The findings aren't just a curiosity. Criminal defense attorneys, for example, are paid huge sums to figure out how to portray their clients in the most sympathetic light. The findings suggest they would do better to focus on how their clients had been wronged in the past. On the flip side, it suggests that the ladies and gentlemen of the jury should check their reactions to stories of victimization, and ask themselves if the stories are really relevant.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What questions did the study ask?
  2. Why did the researchers make sure the fictional wrongdoers had not been victims of the same crimes they themselves committed?
  3. How did the wrongdoer's hero or victim status affect the amount of blame they received?
  4. Do you think it's fair to consider either a person's past suffering or good deeds in determining blame for wrongdoing? Why or why not?

You may want to check out the March 18, 2011, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: an early screening test for autism, a car controlled by thoughts, the safety of fruit seeds, blaming the hero, and testing an ancient Egyptian prosthetic. 

Going Further

For Educators

Other Science NetLinks Science Update lessons exploring sneaky influences on our perception and judgment include: Time Flies, True or False, Opinion Repetition, and Healthy Restaurants.

The Science NetLinks lesson Opinion Surveys examines the nuances of opinion surveys, another area in which objective information can be clouded by subjective perceptions.

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