The influence of prior record on moral judgment

TitleThe influence of prior record on moral judgment
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsKliemann, D., Young L., Scholz J., & Saxe R.
Pagination2949 - 2957
Date Published10/2008

Repeat offenders are commonly given more severe sentences than first-time offenders for the same violations. Though this practice makes intuitive sense, the theory behind escalating penalties is disputed in both legal and economic theories. Here we investigate folk intuitions concerning the moral and intentional status of actions performed by people with positive versus negative prior records. We hypothesized that prior record would modulate both moral judgment and mental state reasoning. Subjects first engaged in an economic game with fair (positive prior record) and unfair (negative prior record) competitors and then read descriptions of their competitors’ actions that resulted in either positive or negative outcomes. The descriptions left the competitors’ mental states unstated. We found that subjects judged actions producing negative outcomes as more “intentional” and more “blameworthy” when performed by unfair competitors. Although explicit mental state evaluation was not required, moral judgments in this case were accompanied by increased activation in brain regions associated with mental state reasoning, including predominantly the right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ). The magnitude of RTPJ activation was correlated with individual subjects’ behavioural responses to unfair play in the game. These results thus provide insight for both legal theory and moral psychology.

Short TitleNeuropsychologia