Moral Character, Motive, and the Psychology of Blame

44 Pages Posted: 21 Apr 2011 Last revised: 17 Jan 2012

See all articles by Janice Nadler

Janice Nadler

Northwestern University - School of Law; American Bar Foundation

Mary-Hunter McDonnell

The Wharton School - The University of Pennsylvania

Date Written: April 18, 2011


Blameworthiness, in the criminal law context, is conceived as the carefully calculated end product of discrete judgments about a transgressor’s intentionality, causal proximity to harm, and the harm’s foreseeability. Research in social psychology, on the other hand, suggests that blaming is often intuitive and automatic, driven by a natural impulsive desire to express and defend social values and expectations. The motivational processes that underlie psychological blame suggest that judgments of legal blame are influenced by factors the law does not always explicitly recognize or encourage. In this Article we focus on two highly related motivational processes – the desire to blame bad people and the desire to blame people whose motive for acting was bad. We report three original experiments that suggest that an actor’s bad motive and bad moral character can increase not only perceived blame and responsibility, but also perceived causal influence and intentionality. We show that people are motivated to think of an action as blameworthy, causal, and intentional when they are confronted with a person who they think has a bad character, even when the character information is totally unrelated to the action under scrutiny. We discuss implications for doctrines of mens rea definitions, felony murder, inchoate crimes, rules of evidence, and proximate cause.

Keywords: blame, responsibility, character, moral reasoning, motive, motivated reasoning

JEL Classification: K10, K30, K49

Suggested Citation

Nadler, Janice and McDonnell, Mary-Hunter, Moral Character, Motive, and the Psychology of Blame (April 18, 2011). Cornell Law Review, Vol. 97, 2012, Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 11-43, Available at SSRN:

Janice Nadler (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - School of Law

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
312-503-3228 (Phone)
312-503-2035 (Fax)

American Bar Foundation ( email )

750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611

Mary-Hunter McDonnell

The Wharton School - The University of Pennsylvania ( email )

3641 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6365
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics