Mental control and attributions of blame for negligent wrongdoing

Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (forthcoming)
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Abstract

Judgments of blame for others are typically sensitive to what an agent knows and desires. However, when people act negligently, they do not know what they are doing and do not desire the outcomes of their negligence. How, then, do people attribute blame for negligent wrongdoing? We propose that people attribute blame for negligent wrongdoing based on perceived mental control, or the degree to which an agent guides their thoughts and attention over time. To acquire information about others’ mental control, people self-project their own perceived mental control to anchor third-personal judgments about mental control and concomitant responsibility for negligent wrongdoing. In four experiments (N = 841), we tested whether perceptions of mental control drive third-personal judgments of blame for negligent wrongdoing. Study 1 showed that the ease with which people can counterfactually imagine an individual being non-negligent mediated the relationship between judgments of control and blame. Studies 2a and 2b indicated that perceived mental control has a strong effect on judgments of blame for negligent wrongdoing and that first-personal judgments of mental control are moderately correlated with third-personal judgments of blame for negligent wrongdoing. Finally, we used an autobiographical memory manipulation in Study 3 to make personal episodes of forgetfulness salient. Participants for whom past personal episodes of forgetfulness were made salient judged negligent wrongdoers less harshly compared to a control group for whom past episodes of negligence were not salient. Collectively, these findings suggest that first-personal judgments of mental control drive third-personal judgments of blame for negligent wrongdoing and indicate a novel role for counterfactual thinking in the attribution of responsibility.

Author Profiles

Samuel Murray
Providence College
Thomas Nadelhoffer
College of Charleston
Felipe De Brigard
Duke University
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