There are lots of situations in which we have to assign blame for an event to a particular person or group of individuals. Much of the daily newspaper is devoted to deciding who caused events to occur. Wars may be caused by the actions of a government. A suspect may be the cause of a series of bank robberies. A particular player may be given the blame for the loss of a football game.
Assigning blame is particularly important for the legal system. In order for people to be found guilty of a crime, a jury has to believe that they are responsible for that crime. And the worst of the crimes are those for which the suspect committed the crime and meant to do it. For example, the most serious murder cases are those for which the killer meant to kill someone and then carried through the plan. So, the thoughts of the suspect matter in people's judgments of guilt.
The role of the perpetrator's thoughts at the time they committed the crime in assigning blame was examined in paper by Jason Plaks, Nicole McNichols, and Jennifer Fortune in the December, 2009 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
They examined two kinds of intentions that someone might have to commit a crime that differ in how abstract or specific they are. Distal intentions are abstract or general commitments to perform an action. For example, a particular person, J.G. may stand to inherit money from his uncle. So, he may want to kill his uncle. That is a distal intention, because killing is a relatively abstract concept. Proximal intentions are specific commitments to a particular plan. For example, J.G. may want to run his uncle down with a car. That is a specific method of trying to kill him.
These researchers were interested in how much a suspect's thoughts while they committed a crime affected people's judgments of blame. They found that in normal situations, both distal intentions and proximal intentions affect people's judgments of how much someone is to blame for a crime. To test this idea, they created a series of scenarios and had people decide how strongly a person (J.G.) was to blame for the action. In all of these scenarios, J.G. wanted to kill his uncle by running him down with his car.
In the story with both distal and proximal intent, J.G. indeed did run his uncle down with the car and killed him. In the story with only distal intent, J.G. was thinking about killing his uncle, when his uncle unexpected stepped out in front of the car while J.G. was driving and he killed him. In the story with only proximal intent, J.G. was trying to keep himself calm by concentrating on the song on the radio, when suddenly he saw his uncle crossing the street and ran him down. In the story with neither intent, J.G. was concentrating on his favorite song to keep himself calm, and then his uncle stepped unexpectedly into the street and J.G. hit him and killed him.
People read only one of these four scenarios. They thought J.G. was most to blame when he had both the distal and proximal and distal intent in mind. He was least to blame when he had neither intention in mind when he hit is uncle. When he had either distal or proximal intent in mind but not both, there was a middle level of blame.
Interestingly, factors that affect how abstractly people think about situations also affected how strongly they weighted proximal or distal intentions. As one example, lots of research suggests that when we think about events that are far away in time, we tend to think about them more abstractly than when we think about events that are close in time.
In a second study, people read scenarios like the J.G. story, but were either told that the event had taken place a few weeks before or 75 years before. The researchers expected that people would think about the situation more abstractly when it took place 75 years ago than when it took place recently. Consistent with this idea, when the event took place 75 years ago, people thought the distal intent was most important for assigning blame. For them, the killer was nearly equally to blame when he had the distal intent in mind regardless of whether he also had the proximal intent in mind. When the event took place a few weeks earlier, though, then the proximal intent mattered most. The killer was nearly equally to blame when he had the proximal intent in mind regardless of whether he also had the distal intent in mind.
There are a few interesting conclusions to draw from this work. First (and not that surprisingly) we think that a person's intentions matter when they perform an action such as committing a crime. Second, general factors that affect the way people represent situations have a big effect on the way they assign blame. In the second study here, increasing the distance in time between the event and the assignment of blame changed the factors people used to assign blame.
This has interesting implications for the legal system. A suspect in the United States is supposed to get a speedy trial, though court proceedings can sometimes drag on for years. If a suspect is tried soon after a crime was committed, then the suspect's proximal intent may have more influence than the suspect's distal intent on a jury's judgment of guilt. On the other hand, if a suspect is tried a long time after the crime is committed, then the suspect's distal intent may have more influence than the proximal intent on judgments of guilt.