Who Cares Re Bygones?

It really is easier to get forgiveness than permission:

In 7 studies, participants judged future bad deeds more negatively, and future good deeds more positively, than equivalent behavior in the equidistant past. In addition, participants thought that future unfair actions deserved more punishment than past unfair actions, and were more willing to sacrifice their own financial gain to be treated fairly in the future compared with in the past. These patterns were explained in part by the stronger emotions that were evoked by thoughts of future events than by thoughts of past events. (more)

This is a form of hypocrisy, in that we pretend to be more offended by the fairness or morality of actions than we will actually be after they occur and can reward or punish them.

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  • Peter St. Onge

    The phrase ‘stronger emotions’ suggests innate human nature, rather than ‘hypocrisy’. Perhaps ‘inconsistent’ would be a more neutral term.

    Personally, rather than mocking such inconsistencies, I’d wonder why genes that assign asymmetric weightings dominate.

    • improbable

      Well if you really believe that the chief will kill you if you steal one of his cattle, and you maintain this belief by asking people and they believe it too, then you’re less likely to do so.

      Afterwards, of course the chief must weigh up the fact that you’re a pretty good hunter, and it’ll be a thin winter without you, etc.

      I guess I’m trying to say that the value of this for enforcing norms of behaviour seems pretty clear. And if these norms promote success then this translates to evolutionary value.

      • Peter St. Onge

        I agree. Hirschleifer calls this an ’emotional doomsday device’.

  • Dog of Justice

    You can discourage unwanted forms of future behavior, but you can’t change the past.

    • michael vassar

      This seems obviously correct to me, and seems to be a sufficient explanation.

    • Matt Simpson

      But having a strong emotional reaction to past events can help prevent future events of the same type from occurring. Because of this effect, it’s not obvious (to me at least) that trying to discourage future bad actions results in higher or lower emotional reactions to the past relative to the future.

  • JB

    How do you know that it is not that we pretend to be *less* offended afterward, and that the “true” level of offense occurs beforehand? Perhaps people seem less offended after the fact because they want to seem as if they are not as affected, as a person who is not as easily disrupted by events is seen as stronger.

  • >judged future bad deeds more negatively, and future good deeds more positively

    To an extent it is even simpler than that : “Nothing is ever as bad, or as good, as it first appears”, and especially not as good or as bad as it is predicted to be. People would naturally judge things they think will have bad results in the future more harshly than actual bad results in the past, because they are probably predicting the bad results that haven’t occurred yet to be worse, even much worse, than they will actually be.

  • Bo

    Or we care more while we can still change things?

  • rapscallion

    Perhaps the most consistent people are those who hold grudges.

  • This may be an inherent understanding of the expansion of morals as described by Darwin. There are in fact more immoral actions now than there were in the past. Thus, if we are judged well in the future, we will have acted better than the rest of our contemporaries, whose actions will appear to be relatively unethical compared to those future ethics.

  • Kakun

    Derek Parfit has done a fair bit of analysis of time-inconsistent morality; it’s appears to a general phenomenon, not limited to examples where we can reward or punish others. For example, suppose that you are going to have a surgical operation that will cause you a great deal of pain, but will also cause you to lose your memory of the operation the next time you fall asleep. Most people will, upon waking up, be much happier if they find that the operation is done, than if they find out that it is about to occur; the same is true of a positive experience. People tend to judge things more extremely before they occur than after.

  • Robert Wiblin

    More strategic than hypocrisy.

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