We don’t need another hero
If you do something wrong (and you get caught) it is better to play the victim than to assert your previous good deeds. We’ve written about this principle before here and here. But that was more about how your past good deeds would not buy you a good public (or courtroom) evaluation if you (like Eliot Spitzer) behaved hypocritically and got caught.
This research could have been written by Hollywood agents in that it says, essentially, “if you get caught, cry victim” (or perhaps, sex addiction or depression or substance abuse). But it was actually written by two psychology faculty (one at Maryland and one at Harvard) so we’re paying attention.
“Our research suggests that morality is not like some kind of cosmic bank, where you can deposit good deeds and use them to offset future misdeeds,” said Gray, who directs the Mind Perception and Morality Lab at the University of Maryland. “Instead, people ignore heroic pasts – or even count them against you – when assigning blame.”
We have a tendency to divide the world up into good/bad, black/white, heroes/villains. And while heroes are easily turned to villains—it’s much harder (if not impossible) to turn a victim into a villain.
What these researchers found though is hard to swallow. When wrong-doers highlighted past suffering, they were punished less and seen as less responsible than those who pointed to their past good deeds and apologized for a mistake made. We don’t want to forgive heroes who admit to a mistake or ‘feet of clay’. We want to know that the wrong-doer couldn’t help it. We want to know that you have been victimized from early on in life. The authors conclude their paper this way:
“What these studies suggest, however, is that once guilt is determined, the strategy is clear. Whether you are trying to defend yourself against a spouse’s wrath for a missed birthday or save yourself from execution for a grisly murder, your task is to become the ultimate victim: regale the jury with stories of childhood abuse, of broken hearts and broken arms. Though a temptation might arise to call friends and colleagues to speak to your moral fiber, the only fiber to which they should attest is the thread of victimhood running through your life. Virtue may have its place, even in the courts, but when the executioner’s hand is near, weep your victimhood as softly as you can.” (Gray & Wegner, 2011).
So is apology passé? While our mock jurors seem to be rolling their eyes at the flood of ‘victims’ depicted in the media—it will be interesting to see if this strategy holds true when it’s seen as the go-to strategy to avoid punishment rather than a more novel tactic. Perhaps the perfect balance would involve a depiction of rising from adversity, leading a life of some regard, and having the demons of the past ensnare the defendant in spite of his efforts.
We think it would be fairly easy to elicit juror disdain over this sort of “run-away” technique but time will tell. In the meantime, Tina Turner has a few things to say.
Kurt Gray, & Daniel M. Wegner (2011). To escape blame, don’t be a hero—Be a victim. Journal of Experimental Psychology