You’re Worse When You’re Hiding The Cocaine: A Moral Psychologist on Character and Blame

Photo credit: Flickr user woodleywonderworks.

This interview is the third installment of It’s Your Fault, a Cubit series about blame in contemporary society. For more on blame, read the introductory post or explore the full series.

Moral psychology subsists mostly on abstract thought experiments and economic games, but David Pizarro’s tastes are a bit messier. An associate professor at Cornell University, Pizarro exudes the devilish sort of charm you’d expect from a psychologist who uses fart spray to shift undergraduates’ political leanings (turns out it makes them like gay people less). While many researchers ask questions about why we think an act is right or wrong, Pizarro is more interested in what we think makes a good or bad person.

Along with Tamler Sommers, a philosopher at the University of Houston, Pizarro hosts “Very Bad Wizards,” a podcast on ethics and cognitive science that includes an impressive array of guests—from Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and atheist polemicist, to Paul Bloom, a moral psychologist, to Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and scholar of irrationality. (Disclosure: Dan Ariely is my boss, and I got to be friends with Pizarro while he spent a semester as a visitor in Ariely’s lab.)

Pizarro and I spoke recently about his work, including the psychological impact of hiding cocaine, anthropomorphizing Islam, and why blame is so central to our moral judgments.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

There’s a recurring appeal in your work to bring character back to the forefront of moral psychology. Why is that so important and how has moral psychology strayed?

The study of moral psychology has sort of exploded in our field, so there’s lots of work on why some people think some things are good, and why some people think some things are bad. Why do people across cultures believe this, or Why do some people think gay marriage is wrong and other people don’t?

The study of responsibility, I think, has been ignored relative to that. And I think it’s actually quite a more interesting question because we’re always making those judgments. We walk by the impulse aisle in the grocery store, and there are gossip magazines saying, “Kanye cheated on Kim.” Why do you care what Kanye did to Kim? We care because we’re deeply moralistic.

And it’s not that we’re making the judgment that cheating is wrong; we’re making the judgment that Kanye is to blame. Obviously cheating is wrong, but once we agree that cheating is wrong, we have to decide daily if someone deserves to be punished or blamed or condemned or praised. And I think we make those judgments about people far more often than we make judgments about whether cheating is wrong or not.

How do those kinds of judgments about people help explain our psychology better than a less character-centered view might?

One of my favorite sets of studies comes from a psychologist, Mark Alicke. So there’s a man driving home in the rain, and he’s speeding. He gets in an accident and hurts other people. If you ask participants, “How much control did the driver have over this accident?” people seem to give a very different response depending on whether he was driving home to hide cocaine from his parents, or whether he was driving home to hide an anniversary gift for his parents. So this is a case where all of the facts of the matter, like that he was speeding and that it was raining, are held constant. The only difference is he’s kind of a dick in one case, and he’s a nice guy in the other.

There were these studies that we did, they were actually my dissertation studies in collaboration with Eric Uhlmann and Peter Salovey, where we found another sort of asymmetry between praise and blame. Impulsive emotional acts are often thought to reduce blame because it indicates that people didn’t have so much control over the outcome. It used to be in the books that if you caught your spouse cheating and you killed them, there were mitigating circumstances if you caught them in the act. People said, “Well, you know, imagine how angry you would be.”

But this doesn’t seem to be happening for positive impulses. So, suppose you’re walking down the street, Vlad, and you see a homeless person—I know you’re very empathic—and suppose you’re just overcome with sympathy for this homeless person, so you empty out your wallet. And I describe it as very impulsive, not even deliberate or thoughtful. While people do seem to reduce blame in impulsive scenarios, they don’t seem to reduce praise. And so in these studies, we documented this asymmetry where people seem to apply different rules for positive and negative acts.

I’ve always found it really interesting that there also seems to be an asymmetry in how we treat religion as a cause for some actions and not others. People are very quick to blame Islam for terrorism in the Middle East, but they seem less eager to credit Islam for the advancements of math and science a thousand years ago. Do you think what’s going on there is that we’re literally anthropomorphizing Islam as if it were an agent? Or is something deeper happening?

That’s a good question and a nice distinction that you’re making. I think part of the answer might be that people are just using the psychological tools that they have to evaluate human beings to evaluate some of these abstract entities. Now I don’t have good evidence for this, at least not published evidence, but I think that people evaluate entities using this sort of character framework as well.

So I think that what’s going on is that people who are opposed to Islam as an institution and as a set of beliefs are just far more likely to find fault and to blame that institution, and they’re reluctant to praise it. With Shai Davidai, who’s a graduate student here at Cornell, we did some studies looking at this (that, again, weren’t published), trying to determine whether or not we use these same character rules for institutions.

We asked people to evaluate the actions of a charitable organization that took upon itself the task of feeding some hungry sub-Saharan African children. If that organization is a particular Christian denominations that the sort of fairly liberal, fairly non-religious Cornell undergrad community doesn’t like, people are much less likely to praise it for its actions. And I think that it’s just because we have a particular view about that organization over time—its intentions, its works, its motives—so we’re likely to make very similar errors. We very easily divide the world into good guys and bad guys. And we think of Islam, The Church of Satan, whatever, as bad guys.

Given what we’ve learned about the psychology of blame and how it distorts our judgments, how do you think we ought to be living our lives differently?

My sister is a wonderful, wonderful person, but if she’s in the car and thinks someone cut her off, she yells, “What an asshole! She meant to do that! What a fucking asshole!” And then I see her cut people off, and I say “You just cut that person off,” and she says, “David, I couldn’t, there was another car right there, I had to do it.”

And I think to myself, here’s a good tactic: pretend that that other person was you, or pretend that the person you just cut off was you having just been cut off. Try to take yourself out of it. [i.e. The Golden Rule — ed.]

And that’s easier said than done, obviously, because we know from common sense and from decades in psychology that we have intimate access to all of our thoughts, feelings, and desires and motives, and moreover, we like to think of ourselves as very good people.

So give people the benefit of the doubt, just for consistency’s sake. Or, if you want to, you could very well be consistent by thinking of yourself as an asshole, too.

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