Why Are We More Forgiving of Those Who Have Suffered Bad Things Than Those Who Have Done Good Deeds?

Imagine you’ve done something wrong. This can be as serious as a double homicide or as prosaic as forgetting your anniversary. Under the withering glare of the prosecution lawyer or your spouse, you ask yourself how best to escape blame. Two strategies come to mind. In the hero strategy, you highlight your past good deeds, and in the victim strategy, you highlight your past suffering.

If religious teachings are any guide, the hero strategy is the best way to go. At Judgment Day, for example, people will have their good and bad deeds weighed against each other. If good deeds are heavier, the gates of heaven open up; if not, then pack for warm weather. Eastern religions that advocate reincarnation share a similar view—the more good deeds, the more likely you get to be an eagle rather than a tapeworm. In these views, morality is like a cosmic bank, with good deeds as deposits and bad deeds as withdrawals.

The cosmic bank analogy suggests that in order to avoid punishment, you should highlight past good deeds to offset your misdeed: Sure I missed our anniversary, but remember when I gave up my vacation to help edit your new book? At first glance, this might seem to work, but does a grisly double murder really seem more acceptable when the murderer has a history of spectacular good deeds?

History suggests good deeds don’t help us escape blame. In court cases where the defense calls up character witnesses to attest to previous good deeds, the verdicts are just as frequently “guilty.” Instead, it appears that the victim strategy is the way to go. Those who talk about the injustice they faced at the hands of their parents, teachers, and lovers seem to escape blame better.

In a study where Dan Wegner and I tested this idea, we found that those who had suffered in the past—even when the suffering was totally unrelated to the misdeed—were blamed less for a misdeed. What’s more, good deeds never helped escape blame and sometimes even increased it. So if you’re a saint and you do something bad, God better help you some more because our psychological judgments are biased against you. On the other hand, if you’ve been victimized, we intuitively assign less blame. In fact, people have a hard time even remembering the misdeeds of a victim. There’s something about victims that seems to be a nonstick blame coating.

The structure of morality provides an explanation. Most people think that the most important distinction in morality is between good and evil, but we tend to divide up the moral world in a different way—into agents and patients. Moral deeds typically have two people—one person who does the moral deed (an agent), and one person who receives it (a patient). In a theft, the thief is the agent and the victim is the patient. In a rescue, the rescuer is the agent and the person in need of rescue is the patient.

People tend to categorize people as either moral agents or moral patients, a phenomenon called “moral typecasting” (we typecast people in moral roles just like actors are typecast into Hollywood roles). Because victims are patients, they are difficult to see as villains. On the other hand, because heroes and villains are both agents, the gap between them is very small; it only takes a small event to flip someone from moral exemplar to morally bankrupt.

This phenomenon can help explain why, as soon as celebrities get caught for a misdeed, they immediately claim victim status and rush to rehab. Lindsay Lohan claimed to be a victim of drug addition, Tiger Woods was a victim of sex addiction. For once, it seems the celebrities have it right. The best way to escape blame is to regale people with stories of past harm and injustice. The best defense is suffering.

Kurt Gray is a social psychologist and the director of the Mind Perception and Morality Lab at the University of Maryland.

Category: Q&A

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