April 7, 2014

If You Get Lucky, You’re Off The Hook, Says Texas A&M Study


If two men throw bricks from a highway overpass, one red brick and one green, and only one brick kills a motorist, would you need to know the color of the brick to decide punishment or are both men equally guilty?

When researchers at Texas A&M University tested people’s beliefs about luck, what they found was that Spock was right – humans are “highly illogical.” Psychology Professor Heather Lench and her team found that a person who acts immorally or recklessly but is “lucky” by escaping dire consequences, is judged less harshly than an “unlucky” person, even when both have committed the same act.

The study, “Beliefs in Moral Luck: When and Why Blame Hinges on Luck,” is co-authored by Lench, along with Rachel Smallman and Kathleen Darbor, also of Texas A&M, and Darren Domsky of Texas A&M at Galveston, and will be published in an upcoming edition of the British Journal of Psychology.

“Moral luck” is a term used in philosophy that describes situations in which a person is subjected to moral judgments by others despite the fact that the assessment is based on factors beyond his or her control, i.e. “luck.”

Lench, who specializes in emotion and cognition − how emotions influence our thinking – explains that test subjects were given a hypothetical situation in which  two men stand on a highway overpass and each blindly tosses a brick down onto the traffic below. One brick is red and the other is green. One brick hits the pavement harming no one, but the other smashes through a car roof, killing someone. The two committed the same immoral act, yet one was lucky that no one was killed.

Heather Lench

Heather Lench

The two men are arrested and test subjects were asked if the two men are equally blameworthy, deserving of the same punishment. In other words, do we need to know the color of the brick to be able to punish them or do they deserve the same punishment regardless of one being luckier than the other?

“We found that when people were faced with this scenario, more of them placed the blame on the man that killed someone,” Lench explains. “Both threw a brick, so logically they should both be held accountable, but the lucky guy gets away with it.”

She adds the test subjects were also asked whether they believed, in general, that people should be punished based on their actions – what they intended to do – or whether or not their actions happened to hurt someone. “In general, people reported that the luck of the outcome shouldn’t matter and that offenders should be judged based on intent,” she says. “However, when faced with the consequences, emotions come into play and they judge based on the outcome rather than the intent.”

Lench likens the brick scenario to drunk driving. “When two people drive drunk, but one hits and kills a child, he is punished more severely than the man who didn’t hurt anyone, although they committed the same offense of drunk driving − it’s just that one got lucky.

“Generally we have a hard time incorporating our abstract beliefs about the way we think the world should work into how it actually works,” she notes. “In the abstract, we don’t value luck, but in our actual judgments of others, we do.”

About Research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is in the vanguard in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represents annual expenditures of more than $820 million. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world. To learn more, visit http://research.tamu.edu.

Media contact: Lesley Henton, Division of Marketing & Communications at Texas A&M University;
979-845-5591, lshenton@tamu.edu

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3 Comments to If You Get Lucky, You’re Off The Hook, Says Texas A&M Study

  1. It makes you think. great article.

  2. Dean Coffer on April 8th, 2014
  3. In the case of guys throwing bricks – to my mind, they are both guilty and should be equally punished. Intent becomes very important. If they are aware that they are stand on an overpass, that there are motorists driving under the overpass but they go ahead and throw the bricks anyway – they are both guilty of killing the motorist.

    The case of drunk driving is a little different (at least in my mind) in that the driver does not drive with the intent of killing a child. I would arrive at the same conclusion – heavier punishment for the driver whose recklessness results in death of a child. But supposing they both drove with the intent to hit someone? Now that would make me judge the ‘lucky’ offender with the same standard as the unlucky one – they are both guilty. Intent to me is important.

  4. Rose on April 9th, 2014
  5. What a rabbit hole this article lead me down! Reading this lead me to apply it to my thoughts on law enforcement and leniency in criminal sentencing versus a turn of phrase!

    Overall, I disagree with the attrition to the “LENIENCY of imposing a sentence” by the studies participants to the word “lucky.” I think the study participants applied leniency based on the OUTCOME of actions (consequences). This is of course being said without my having any knowledge of the study beyond this article…

    For example, isn’t the person who threw the brick which hit the car and killed the child more harshly judged by the study participants because of the RESULTS of his actions? Aren’t you focused more on the fact that he killed a person and NOT that he threw a brick?

    Entered the rabbit hole!

    I think that the death of the child is considered more heinous and worthy of federal punishment than the person who simply threw a brick. Imagine there were no witnesses to the brick throwing. Imagine that you are the first person to encounter the car with the deceased child and injured driver. You would call 911 for assistance and an investigation would occur leading to the (hopeful) apprehension of the brick thrower. He’s charged and convicted by a jury of his peers (legally held accountable for his actions).

    Now imagine the opposite. You are the first person to encounter a brick in the road. Do you call 911 or keep driving? Do you deem the brick in the road as a crime that needs investigating to determine how the brick got there and lead to an eventual arrest? Probably not. This is because the consequences of the brick throwing were negligible.

    The non-fatal brick thrower is never apprehended, there were no consequences to his crime (no one was injured so police never track him down) and no one called the police to report the perpetrator of the crime. Now let’s say that a friend/parent/coworker hears about the brick throwing incident and says, “you’re lucky that…” This is an individual exposing the possible consequences of their actions and imposing their own socially acceptable method of sentencing.

    One event is deemed by society as deserving punishment and the other is not worth it.

    Anyway, thought I’d share my thoughts! Thanks for sharing! Great article.

  6. Hanna on April 11th, 2014
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