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Criminal Justice

Charged with a Misdeed? Drop the Hero Strategy and Opt for Victimhood, Study Says

Posted Feb 22, 2011 7:00 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Some people trying to escape blame for misdeeds try the hero strategy.

The idea, often employed by defense lawyers, is to emphasize a person’s past good deeds as a rescuer of orphans, perhaps, or a pillar of the community, according to an article to be published in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Then there is the victim strategy, used by defense lawyers who emphasize how a defendant has suffered at the hands of parents, lovers or society. According to a study detailed in the article, this is the better option.

The authors are psychology professor Kurt Gray of the University of Maryland and Daniel Wegner of Harvard University, according to a press release. They asked study participants to respond to a variety of misdeeds, such as taking money or harming someone, and changed the background of the transgressor.

In one scenario, a man named George was paid $600 every week, but he gave away $100 of it to charity. In another, he was paid $600 but his supervisor always steals $100 of it. In the third, George gets all of his pay and spends it on normal things. When George saw a woman drop $10, he kept it rather than giving it back. Study participants assessed less blame for George the victim.

The study also created a fictional man whose college background varied. In one scenario, he created a charity. In another, he was hit by a drunk driver but recovered. In a third, he worked at a hardware store. Later, when working as a cook, the man ignored a severely allergic woman’s request for a peanut-free salad. Study participants found the hero most blameworthy and the victim the least.

The press release quotes Gray. "Our research suggests that morality is not like some kind of cosmic bank, where you can deposit good deeds and use them to offset future misdeeds," he said. "Instead, people ignore heroic pasts—or even count them against you—when assigning blame."

The article says there is virtue in good deeds, but in the court system it’s better to be “the ultimate victim.”

Updated at 9:35 a.m. to correct title of the journal publishing the paper.

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