Friday, October 26, 2012

Who is to blame when no one is to be praised?

Let’s imagine for a moment that I am extraordinarily brilliant, but my brilliance is not due to my own hard work nor is it due to the wonderful instruction I have received; rather my brilliance is due to the fact that I was born with gene X. Let’s further imagine that the effects of gene X are robust. That is, the effects of gene X (my extraordinary brilliance!) are largely insensitive to environmental variation and developmental course. As long as some minimal conditions of life are met, having gene X guarantees that I will be exactly as brilliant as I in fact turned out to be.

Question: Who is to be praised for my brilliance?

The glasses pair well with the genes.

If your intuition is similar to mine, your answer is probably something along the lines of: “No one, really. Your genius appears to have been innately determined in a way that your genius didn’t really depend on the actions or efforts of you or other people. Neither you nor anyone really deserves praise for that.”

As you can tell from my answer, I think that this ‘no praise’ intuition is driven, at least in part, by me classifying the development of the characteristic as being innately determined in such a way that the development of the characteristic is largely insensitive to environmental variation.

But here is the kicker: According to a new and provocative paper by Joshua Knobe and Richard Samuels, people are significantly less willing to classify an attribute as innate when the attribute is negative than when the attribute is positive. This is true even when the scenario that leads to the negative attribute is described as being the result of a gene that is largely insensitive to environmental conditions.

Even more surprising is that this effect held true even for scientists who were actively working as researchers in fields that regularly used the concept of innateness (e.g., biology, psychology)!

But, of course, the badness or goodness of the characteristic is irrelevant for whether a given characteristic is innate.

But the problem may be even worse. If praise/blame attributions are moderated, at least in part, by innateness judgments, then our praise/blame judgments would be asymmetrical for reasons that are unjustifiable.

But not all news is bad news.

When people viewed both the “bad” and the “good” version of each vignette prior to making the innateness classification, people were able to recognize that the goodness and badness of the characteristic was irrelevant, and, on average, the asymmetry in innateness classifications disappeared.

What does this all mean?

Well, these findings suggest another potential strike against the idea of the “objective juror” (see related posts by Cyd Cipolla here and here). If (certain degrees of) innateness should mitigate responsibility, and if we are biased toward not seeing negative characteristics as innate, we will be biased away from mitigating responsibility in criminal cases even in cases when we should.

This research also suggests a way to guard against potential biases. If a lawyer or judge is worried that a particular piece of information might bias jurors, the lawyer or judge may only need to provide the appropriate contrast case in order to get jurors to recognize that a particular piece of evidence may be irrelevant.

Want to cite this post?
Shepard, J. (2012). Who is to blame when no one is to be praised? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on from


Laura E. Mariani said...

This reminds me of some experimental philosophy research on intentionality, also by Joshua Knobe, that I heard about a couple years back. There's a summary and a link to the podcast that I heard here:

Basically, the moral valence of an action had a significant effect on whether someone described that action as intentional or not -- if someone incidentally caused harm through their actions, people said that harm was intentional, but if someone incidentally caused benefit, people were less likely to give them credit for that benefit. It seems like both studies show that we're quicker to assign blame than praise.

Ross Gordon said...

Hey Jason, really interesting post. I'm not too familiar with this literature, but I'd suggest an alternative interpretation for Knobe and Samuels' data.

I think that in most situations where a person has performed badly - either descriptively or morally - it's preferable to consider the bad performance as non-innate. If my failure is innate, I have no reason to try to do better - if my failure is fixable, I have incentive to work harder until I succeed. The latter decision may be problematic if I am, in fact, destined by my genes to fail - but in reality, I think is rarely (if ever) the case.

I think the stereotype threat literature provides some pretty good examples of why this is the case. Some people think females, on average, are worse at math. I don't think that's true, but let's assume for the moment that it is. That may lead some people to say, as one of my professors has said to me, that "girls are innately worse at math." The problem is that saying "girls are innately worse at math" absolutely annihilates girls' math scores in comparison to boys'. The prediction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and if you take it away girls score as well or better ( The same principle is operative in racial contexts, and the effect sizes are typically huge (e.g.

Applied to courtrooms, I think stereotype could be (and perhaps already is) especially problematic. Labelling someone a criminal is bad enough in terms of self-fulfilling prophecies; labelling someone "innately" a criminal sounds like a recipe for unending recidivism.

Until we can determine "innateness" with 100% certainty, independent of stereotype threat and independent of systematic environmental intermediaries - something I don't think we'll ever be able to do, and which I think would be profoundly scary if we ever could - I think we're better off leaving this bias untouched.