The Future Version of Yourself Is More Sinister

One of the more interesting aspects of social psychology is the way different orientations can cause people to interpret the same thing in different ways. For example, you judge something differently if it were to happen in the past rather than the future. More specifically, according to a new study by Zachary Burns, Eugene Caruso, and Daniel Bartels, we tend to view future actions as more intentional than past actions, and as a result we prefer to punish future transgressions more harshly.

In 3 studies, we demonstrate that people judge the same behavior as more intentional when it will be performed in the future than when it has been performed in the past. We found this temporal asymmetry in perceptions of both the strength of an individual’s intention and the overall prevalence of intentional behavior in a population. Because of its heightened intentionality, people thought the same transgression deserved more severe punishment when it would occur in the future than when it did occur in the past.

When people have done something in the past, we understand how circumstances may have forced their hand. Apparently we do not grant that courtesy to people in the future. The authors conclude by relating their findings to our justice system (although they don’t recommend using them as a defense next time you’re caught smoking weed outside a Chuck E. Cheese):

Policy makers are generally concerned with future action, and hence are forward-looking, whereas policy enforcers are generally concerned with past action, and hence are backward-looking. This difference in temporal orientation could potentially lead to policies that are more draconian, and enforcement that is more lenient, than society would adopt if people were aware of the asymmetry we have documented here.

Let’s say a guy gets arrested for heroin possession. The law is forward-looking and therfore the by-the-book penalty will be harsher than what’s desired. But the judge is backward-looking, and so he is more lenient than what’s desired. Do we end up arriving at a middle ground that is exactly what we would want? Are two wrongs making a right?

Another question is whether the same effects occur when somebody does something positive. Do we set excessively large rewards because we overestimate the intentionality of future good deeds? Do we skimp on rewards for things that were done in the past?

Burns, Z., Caruso, E., & Bartels, D. (2012). Predicting premeditation: Future behavior is seen as more intentional than past behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141 (2), 227-232 DOI: 10.1037/a0024861

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