Inferences about moral character moderate the impact of consequences on blame and praise

Jenifer Z. Siegel, Molly J. Crockett, Raymond J. Dolan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Moral psychology research has highlighted several factors critical for evaluating the morality of another's choice, including the detection of norm-violating outcomes, the extent to which an agent caused an outcome, and the extent to which the agent intended good or bad consequences, as inferred from observing their decisions. However, person-centered accounts of moral judgment suggest that a motivation to infer the moral character of others can itself impact on an evaluation of their choices. Building on this person-centered account, we examine whether inferences about agents’ moral character shape the sensitivity of moral judgments to the consequences of agents’ choices, and agents’ role in the causation of those consequences. Participants observed and judged sequences of decisions made by agents who were either bad or good, where each decision entailed a trade-off between personal profit and pain for an anonymous victim. Across trials we manipulated the magnitude of profit and pain resulting from the agent's decision (consequences), and whether the outcome was caused via action or inaction (causation). Consistent with previous findings, we found that moral judgments were sensitive to consequences and causation. Furthermore, we show that the inferred character of an agent moderated the extent to which people were sensitive to consequences in their moral judgments. Specifically, participants were more sensitive to the magnitude of consequences in judgments of bad agents’ choices relative to good agents’ choices. We discuss and interpret these findings within a theoretical framework that views moral judgment as a dynamic process at the intersection of attention and social cognition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)201-211
Number of pages11
StatePublished - Oct 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


  • Blame
  • Character
  • Moral judgment
  • Morality
  • Omission bias
  • Praise


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