Anton races home at speeds well in excess of the speed limit. He’s rushing to beat his parents home so that he can hide their anniversary present so it will be a surprise. Suddenly, he hits a slick patch and runs his car off the road an into a tree. He’s okay, but the car is totaled and his parent’s surprise anniversary party is ruined.
How much is Anton to blame for the accident? If you had to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, maybe you’d give him a 7. After all, he was just trying to do something special for his parents.
But what if instead of hiding an anniversary present, Anton was rushing home to hide his cocaine stash? Would you now say he’s more to blame for the accident? You might not when the two alternatives are placed side-by-side, but when Mark Alicke told the two versions of this story to different groups, the cocaine group rated Anton as more blameworthy than the anniversary present group.
Alicke’s study provided the foundation for an array of studies on the effects of social evaluations of individuals on apparently unrelated events, and even factual recollections about episodes.
But when a team led by David Pizarro addressed this question, no study had yet shown that unrelated details about a person could literally affect witnesses’ accuracy in recalling that person’s actions. The researchers presented a simple story to 283 college students. The story described a person named Frank entering a restaurant, paying with cash for a drink, then ordering a three-course meal, receiving a cell phone call, and leaving without paying the $56.43 bill.
Then some of the students learned that Frank was a generally responsible person, it’s just that the phone call was the hospital, telling him his daughter had been in an accident. When Frank realized his mistake, he contacted the restaurant and told them he’d return with payment the next day.
Another group of students were told the Frank enjoyed walking out on checks, and had treated the waiter at the restaurant rudely. He was obnoxiously loud on his phone call and deliberately left without paying.
A third group received no explanation for Frank’s behavior.
All the students were asked to rate Frank’s level of blame for his behavior on a scale of 1 to 9. As you might expect, those who heard the “bad” explanation rated him very highly — an average of 8.14, while the “good” group gave a significantly lower rating of just 2.96.
The students returned to the lab a week later and were surprised with a quiz about the story. They were asked to recall the price he paid for the meal as well as several menu items. Here are some of the results:
The “bad” group recalled the meal cost as significantly higher than the “good” group — those overestimating the magnitude of Frank’s crime. There was also a trend towards those in the “bad” group being more likely to believe that Frank hadn’t paid for his drink (he had).
Pizarro et al. say this is first study showing that social knowledge of an individual can actually distort details about an event. There have been some studies focusing on different descriptions of an event (a car crash seen on video and later described as two cars “smashing into” each other versus “hitting” each other), which resulted in memory distortions for the original event, but never has a study found that changing details about an individual’s character can also distort memories of an event.
Pizarro, D.A., Laney, C., Morris, E.K., Loftus, E.F. (2006). Ripple effects in memory: Judgments of moral blame can distort memory for events. Memory & Cognition, 34(3), 550-555.