Saturday, September 03, 2011

Lightning strikes twice.

The research I want to tell you about today is another fascinating study that illustrates how our emotions affect decision making in a way that is not consistent with logic, but does make sense.

The authors propose a model that divides an act into what you intended to do, if you knew that it would cause a negative consequence, and whether than consequence actually happened.  So for example maybe you do something on purpose, but you don’t know it could hurt someone (intent, but not knowledge).  Or maybe you knew that the act could hurt someone, but you didn’t mean to do it.  It was an “accident” (knowledge but not intent).  Or maybe you knew that the act could hurt someone, you meant to do it, but the person didn’t get hurt by luck (intent and knowledge, but no consequences). All kinds of combinations are possible. 

It turns out that there are two different kind of judgments.  If someone is judging whether what you did was wrong or impermissible, that is one kind of judgment.  If someone is judging whether you are to blame or deserve punishment, that is another kind of judgment.  And it turns out that the judgments are made in different ways.

Judgments of whether you deserve punishment or blame depend on all three steps (intent, knowledge, and consequences).  But judgments of whether you did something wrong or impermissible depends mostly on knowledge, somewhat on intent, but not on consequences.  In other words attempted murder is not as bad as murder.  Manslaughter is not as bad as murder.  These things we know, but now we know the cognitive functions behind it.

And here is the weird part.  Do this quickly so you can find out what your gut things.  
Which of these is more morally wrong?
1. You shoot at someone, intending to kill him, but you miss and he lives.
2.  You shoot at someone,  intending to kill him, but you miss.  At the same time, lightning strikes him and he dies.

If you remember the model, there are three steps in the logical chain:  intent, knowledge, and consequences.  In this weird #2, there are consequences, but caused by someone/thing else.  People attribute less blame to the shooter when the lightning strikes, even though what the shooter did, knew and intended to do is the same in both cases.  They don’t judge the act as more morally wrong, but they do allocate more punishment.  It is logically inconsistent, but that is what happens.  If they can assign the blame to something else, it takes away some of the blame from you.  If you just miss, there is no other entity to assign blame so you still get it. Even though there are no real consequences.

This is just more evidence that people make their moral judgments based on emotion and instinct and only afterwards try to think of logical reasons why they decided in that particular way.