Heros and Victims

Last week at the MMPL meeting I presented a paper called To Escape Blame, Don’t be a Hero – Be a Victim (pdf) by Gray and Wegner (2011). The first paragraph summarizes the central question really well:

How do you escape blame for doing something immoral? One option is the hero strategy: Remind people of your previous good deeds—ideally, something very good that earns you credit against your wrongdoing. This is the strategy defense attorneys use when they point out a defendant's record as pillar of the community or rescuer of orphans. Another option is the victim strategy: Escape blame by highlighting some harm you suffered to turn yourself into a victim rather than a harm-doer. This is the strategy attorneys use when they point out how much a defendant has suffered in life, whether at the hands of parents, lovers, or society. Both strategies are frequently used by attorneys (Spence, 2005), but does either work?

Gray and Wegner have previously done a lot of research on mind perception and moral typecasting, and this paper fits neatly with the rest of their work. They propose that when we attribute mind to other entities, we do so along two dimensions: Agency and Experience.

Adult humans tend to be perceived as fairly high on both Agency and Experience – we have the capacity to make decisions, exercise self-control, and act upon the world; and we can also feel pain and a wide range of emotions. By contrast, robots are perceived as low on Experience, but medium on Agency. Babies are low on Agency but high on Experience – and so it goes. All clear so far?

Then, when it comes to morality, Gray and Wegner propose that moral agents and moral patients are perceived differently in terms of the mind dimensions. Moral agents are relatively high on Agency but lower on Experience, and vice versa for moral patients.

Crucially to the hero/victim argument, being seen as a moral agent (or a hero, in this case) means it subsequently becomes “more difficult” to be seen as a moral patient – that is, people can become “typecast” as either agents or patients based on relatively little information, and this perception is resistant to change.

In their study, Gray and Wegner find that people who are perceived as victims (i.e. moral patients) are blamed less for moral transgressions. This can be understood within the framework of mind perception and moral typecasting because it is hard to blame someone who is relatively incapable of agency.

Of course the very best way of ensuring that you escape blame is probably to not do something wrong in the first place. But as Gray and Wegner say in another version of the article: “once guilt is assured … one must weigh the chances of complete acquittal afforded by the hero strategy against the robust power of victimhood.”


When the article came out, it was written about in a number of places, so if you’re interested to read more, click here and here and here. Also, Another Way provides, well, another way to look at it, here.

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