Cinderella and the Wrongdoing Schema for Moral Thinking

A bad agent with bad intentions performs bad actions that harm a victim.

Posted Jun 19, 2015

The 2015 movie Cinderella is a charming and vivid retelling of the classic children's story. Cinderella is severely mistreated by her evil stepmother, but eventually marries the handsome prince. The tale illustrates a common pattern in which a victim (Cinderella) experiences harm (overwork) because of bad actions (bossing) performed by a bad agent (the stepmother) with bad intentions (exploit Cinderella to serve her daughters). This pattern is so common that I think it deserves a name: the wrongdoing schema.

This schema applies to many other children's stories, including the Three Little Pigs, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood. Everyone who grew up with these stories can identify the bad agent, bad intentions, bad actions and harmed victim in each story.   The wrongdoing schema is not just a list, because it has a clear causal direction: the badness of the agent and intentions cause bad actions which cause harm to the victim. Children acquire the wrongdoing schema from numerous events at home and school as well as from fairy tales.

The wrongdoing schema is psychologically important because it can provide a unified explanation of several well-documented patterns of thinking in humans: moral dumbfounding, dyadic completion, the Knobe effect, and breakdown in romantic relationships. What occurs in all these cases is that people match a situation to the wrongdoing schema and then use it to make inferences.  

 Jonathan Haidt describes moral dumbfounding as what occurs when people insist that an action that they view to be wrong must have some harm attached to it. For example, even when brother-sister incest is described as completely voluntary, mutually pleasurable, and guaranteed not to produce offspring, many people continue to insist that there must be some harm associated with it. The wrongdoing schema explains this persistence because the conviction that there is a bad act leads people to fill in the blank in the schema that requires a harmed victim. 

More generally, Kurt Gray and his colleagues have identified what they call dyadic completion from sin to suffering. They present studies that show that people automatically infer that wrong acts are harmful, rejecting the occurrence of victimless wrongs, for example with masturbation. Again, the wrongdoing schema supports the inference from bad acts to harm. 

The wrongdoing schema can also explain another kind of inference in an interesting phenomenon in experimental philosophy called the Knobe effect. Joshua Knobe found that people are more likely to judge an act to be intentional if it has harmful consequences, for example when a CEO does something that harms the environment as opposed to helping it. The wrongdoing schema explains this inference because matching the pattern that includes harm leads to the inference that there was a bad intention behind it.

Finally, the wrongdoing schema explains the tendency in marital breakdowns for people to infer that there is something fundamentally bad about their partners, such as being selfish, inconsiderate, or even malevolent. When a person feels harmed, it is natural but often erroneous to apply the wrongdoing schema and infer that there must be a bad person responsible for the harm.  According to John Gottman, the resulting negativity is one of the factors in divorce and other relationship failures.  

So matching the wrongdoing schema and completing its causal pattern leads to inferences concerning harm, intention, and personality. I predict that social psychologists or experimental philosophers could devise experiments to show an additional effect:   people who are presented with cases of bad agents, bad intentions, and harms will automatically infer that a bad act has occurred. This result would provide further confirmation for the theory that human moral cognition is often governed by the wrongdoing schema.


Gottman, J. M. (2011). The science of trust:  Emotional attunement for couples. New York: W. W. Norton.

Gray, K., Schein, C., & Ward, A. F. (2014). The myth of harmless wrongs in moral cognition:  Automatic dyadic completion from sin to suffering. Journal of Experimental Psychology:  General, 143, 1600-1615.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind:  Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon.

Knobe, J., & Nichols, S. (Eds.). (2008). Experimental philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.