COLUMBIA, Mo. — Despite that timeless saying involving glass houses, it’s human nature to judge other people. People can’t help but form opinions about others based on what they see of them, but many tend to let someone’s childhood adversity influence how they perceive them. Now, researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia are detailing the “asymmetrically sensitive” nature of this phenomenon.
“In the case of negative or anti-social behavior, 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,” says Philip Robbins, associate professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy, in a university release. “On the other hand, when someone has experienced adversity in childhood and does something good, we tend to think of that behavior as more reflective or expressive of who the person is deep down, so we praise them more for it.”
These findings, based on a statistical analysis of survey results encompassing 248 people, indicate that dealing with adversity during childhood can be a “deformative experience” that reshapes an individual’s moral development.
“Experiences deform people’s behavior 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,” Prof. Robbins adds.
This study, which was conducted by Robbins and Fernando Alvear, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at MU, actually builds on earlier research put together by Prof. Robbins and colleagues, including Paul Litton, dean of the MU School of Law. Previously, they had found that people tend to consider violent criminals less culpable and less deserving of punishment if told that the accused had dealt with serious harm as a child. Earlier studies also noted people tend to heap more praise on others for good deeds as an adult if they knew that person had to overcome adversity or suffering earlier in life (abuse, neglect).
This latest research by Robbins and Alvear set out to investigate a largely unanswered question from the earlier studies: Why does this kind of information have such an effect on people’s judgments of others?
“This has all sorts of implications for people’s social interactions,” Prof. Robbins explains. “Moral judgment is tremendously important for how we relate to others as people because they form 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.”
Prof. Robbins believes there is a natural “track” for each person’s development, and people who haven’t experienced challenging life events like loss, trauma, or other social disadvantages do not usually develop strong anti-social tendencies later on in life.
“People generally learn to behave in morally appropriate ways toward other people, such as not hurting, harming or speaking ill of them,” Prof. Robbins concludes. “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.”
Moving forward, Prof. Robbins is planning on analyzing the role that gender stereotyping may play in shaping how judgments of blame and praise are influenced by knowledge about a person’s life history.
The study is published in the journal Social Cognition.