Our perception or judgment about a person can change upon discovering their history of childhood adversity or suffering. Researchers discovered the reason why someone’s childhood adversity influences how others judge their behaviour.
According to Philip Robbins, associate professor and department chair of philosophy, these findings add to the growing body of evidence that suggests judgments of praise and blame are “asymmetrically sensitive” to a certain type of information about someone’s life history.
“In the case of negative or anti-social behaviour, we see the actions of people with adverse childhood experiences as less of a reflection of their fundamental moral character and more as a reflection of the environment they were raised in, so we blame them less for those actions,” Robbins said. “On the other hand, when someone has experienced adversity in childhood and does something good, we tend to think of that behaviour as more reflective or expressive of who the person is deep down, so we praise them more for it.”
Struggling with adversity in life can be deformative
Based on statistical analysis of survey results from 248 participants, the research suggests that struggling with adversity in early life can be a “deformative experience,” reshaping an individual’s moral development.
“Experiences deform people’s behaviour in the sense that adverse experiences can pull people away from who they really are on a deeper level by pushing them onto an ‘alternative’ track of anti-sociality that they otherwise wouldn’t be on,” Robbins said.
More praise to someone after discovering their childhood suffering
Building on past research by Robbins and associates, notably Paul Litton, dean of the MU School of Law, Fernando Alvear is a PhD candidate in philosophy at MU. Before, Robbins and his colleagues discovered that when people are informed that the accused suffered significant injury as a child, they tend to view violent criminals as less responsible and deserving of punishment.
They also discovered that when people learn that a person overcame hardship or suffering early in life, such as abuse or neglect as a child, they are more likely to applaud them for their good deeds as an adult.
The goal of the current study by Robbins and Alvear was to address a significant gap in our understanding of why this type of information has such an impact on people’s assessments.
Understanding how moral judgment works
“This has all sorts of implications for people’s social interactions,” Robbins said. “Moral judgment is tremendously important for how we relate to others as people because it forms an essential part of social judgment. The current research is part of a larger project aimed at understanding how moral judgment works. This understanding could potentially reorient people’s thinking in ways that could have positive effects on the everyday practice of blaming and praising.”
According to Robbins, there is a natural “track” for a person’s development, and those who haven’t gone through difficult life circumstances like bereavement, trauma, or other social disadvantages often don’t later exhibit significant anti-social tendencies.
“People generally learn to behave in morally appropriate ways toward other people, such as not hurting, harming or speaking ill of them,” Robbins said. “When people don’t learn these lessons, they are pulled off-track from the natural path of development. People may not be saints or heroes, but most of us aren’t villains either.”
Robbins intends to investigate how gender stereotypes may influence how knowledge about a person’s life history affects judgements of blame and praise in subsequent work.
Materials provided by University of Missouri-Columbia. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Philip Robbins, Fernando Alvear. Deformative Experience: Explaining the Effects of Adversity on Moral Evaluation. Social Cognition (Forthcoming), 2023 [abstract]
University of Missouri-Columbia. “Why childhood adversity impacts how a person’s behavior is judged.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 August 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/08/230822151724.htm>.
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