Date Published: March 12, 2019
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Steve Guglielmo, Bertram F. Malle, Valerio Capraro.
Despite extensive recent investigations of moral judgments, little is known about how negative judgments like blame might differ from positive judgments like praise. Drawing on theory from both social and moral cognition, the present studies identify and test potential asymmetries in the extremity and differentiatedness of blame as compared to praise. The amplified blame hypothesis predicts that people will assign greater blame for negative behaviors than praise for positive behaviors. The differentiated blame hypothesis predicts that, as compared to praise judgments, blame judgments will more finely differentiate among distinct mental states that precede action, such as thoughts, desires, and intentions. A series of studies—using varied stimulus sets and samples—together provide robust support for the differentiated blame hypothesis and somewhat weaker support for the amplified blame hypotheses. These results illustrate systematic asymmetries between blame and praise, generally revealing that blame is more extreme and differentiated than praise. Together, the findings reflect the social costs and social regulatory function of moral judgments, suggesting that blame and praise are not mirror images and that blame might be more complex.
Morality regulates social behavior by way of norms [1,2]. Norms reflect community demands on individual behavior  and are enforced by community approval and disapproval . Some norms prohibit negative behavior, and a person violating them may be blamed; other norms prescribe positive behavior, and a person abiding by them may be praised. But are blame and praise mirror images of each other? If not, how do they differ? Previous research offers scarce evidence on asymmetries between moral judgments of blame and praise. This article takes a first step toward a systematic investigation of such potential asymmetries.
Blame has been studied extensively in the moral judgment literature, with the goal of clarifying the information elements that elicit blame, the psychological processes that generate these judgments, and the social consequences of blaming. This work has revealed that blame integrates information about outcomes and about mental states such as desires and intentions [5–7], that blame is both an intrapersonal cognitive judgment and an interpersonal social expression , and that blame and punishment—if applied judiciously—can help elicit cooperative, prosocial behavior [9,10].
We present a series of studies designed to test two potential asymmetries between moral judgments of blame versus praise. The amplified blame hypothesis predicts that, even when matched on their overall basic extremity, negative behaviors will elicit more blame than positive behaviors will elicit praise. We test this hypothesis in Studies 1, 2, 3, and 4. The differentiated blame hypothesis predicts that people’s blame judgments, compared with praise judgments, will more finely differentiate among distinct levels of commitment to bringing about an action or outcome. We test this hypothesis in three studies, first with a smaller set of such levels (thinking and intending: Study 1) and then an expanded set (thinking, wanting, and planning: Studies 2 and 3). To ensure that the results are replicable across a diverse set of characteristics, our studies use a variety of stimulus sets, participant samples, and judgment contexts (i.e., varying the between- vs. within-subjects manipulations of valence and judgment type).
Study 3 served as a replication of the patterns revealed in Study 2, focusing specifically on the dual valence (within-subject) presentation mode. We also returned to the bipolar response scale from Study 1 (-5 to +5) so that people use the same scale to judge positive and negative behaviors. This way, any differences between behavior sets cannot be due to differences in scale use.
Studies 1, 2, and 3 assessed two hypotheses. According to the amplified blame hypothesis, people’s blame judgments are more extreme than their praise judgments, even when the negative and positive behaviors are matched on their extremity. According to the differentiated blame hypothesis, people more finely differentiate among distinct pre-action mental states when assigning blame than when assigning praise. Evidence for blame amplification was somewhat inconsistent—the pattern of means was present in all three studies, but whereas Studies 1 and 3 showed this pattern to be statistically significant, Study 2 did not.
Because there was some inconsistency in the evidence for the amplification hypothesis, Study 4 tested it one more time, with a new, tightly constructed stimulus set. In this set, the descriptions of negative and positive behaviors were not only matched on overall negativity/positivity but also on several specific content features and statement length.
The present studies assessed potential differences between judgments of blame and praise. Drawing upon research examining cognitive processing of negative and positive stimuli broadly speaking, we developed hypotheses concerning two ways in which blame and praise, specifically, might be asymmetric. The amplified blame hypothesis posited that people will blame negative behavior more strongly than they will praise positive behavior; the differentiated blame hypothesis posited that people will more finely distinguish among discrete mental states preceding action—such as thinking, wanting, and intending—when assigning blame than when assigning praise.
This article reported a series of studies designed to test potential asymmetries between moral judgments of blame and praise. The results revealed systematic ways in which these judgments differ. Blame tended to be more extreme than praise, even when behaviors were matched on degree of basic extremity. Blame was more differentiated: people made more fine-grained distinctions among particular mental states (i.e., thinking vs. wanting vs. intending) when assigning blame than when assigning praise. Together, these findings reflect the social costs and social regulatory function of moral judgments, suggesting that blame and praise are not mirror images and that blame might be more complex.