When the Future Feels Worse than the Past: A Temporal Inconsistency in Moral Judgment

Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 139 (4), Nov 2010, 610-624

by Eugene Caruso

Abstract: Logically, an unethical behavior performed yesterday should also be unethical if performed tomorrow. However, the present studies suggest that the timing of a transgression has a systematic effect on people's beliefs about its moral acceptability. Because people's emotional reactions tend to be more extreme for future events than for past events, and because such emotional reactions often guide moral intuitions, judgments of moral behavior may be more extreme in prospect than in retrospect. In 7 studies, participants judged future bad deeds more negatively, and future good deeds more positively, than equivalent behavior in the equidistant past. In addition, participants thought that future unfair actions deserved more punishment than past unfair actions, and were more willing to sacrifice their own financial gain to be treated fairly in the future compared with in the past. These patterns were explained in part by the stronger emotions that were evoked by thoughts of future events than by thoughts of past events. Taken together, the results suggest that permission for actions with ethical connotations may be harder to get than forgiveness for those same actions, and demonstrate a systematic way in which moral judgments of the same action are inconsistent across time.

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(Something interesting I found)Posted: Monday, December 13, 2010 by agomberg
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