Optimality Bias in Moral Judgment

68 Pages Posted: 1 Nov 2017 Last revised: 2 Aug 2018

See all articles by Julian De Freitas

Julian De Freitas

Harvard University - Business School (HBS)

Samuel Johnson

University of Bath - School of Management

Date Written: July 24, 2018


We often make decisions with incomplete knowledge of their consequences. Might people nonetheless expect others to make optimal choices, despite this ignorance? Here, we show that people are sensitive to moral optimality: that people hold moral agents accountable depending on whether they make optimal choices, even when there is no way that the agent could know which choice was optimal. This result held up whether the outcome was positive, negative, inevitable, or unknown, and across within-subjects and between- subjects designs. Participants consistently distinguished between optimal and suboptimal choices, but not between suboptimal choices of varying quality — a signature pattern of the Efficiency Principle found in other areas of cognition. A mediation analysis revealed that the optimality effect occurs because people find suboptimal choices more difficult to explain and assign harsher blame accordingly, while moderation analyses found that the effect does not depend on tacit inferences about the agent’s knowledge or negligence. We argue that this moral optimality bias operates largely out of awareness, reflects broader tendencies in how humans understand one another’s behavior, and has real-world implications.

Keywords: Moral Judgment, Lay Decision Theory, Theory of Mind, Decision-Making, Causal Attribution

JEL Classification: D03, D81, M3

Suggested Citation

De Freitas, Julian and Johnson, Samuel, Optimality Bias in Moral Judgment (July 24, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3062209 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3062209

Julian De Freitas

Harvard University - Business School (HBS) ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States

Samuel Johnson (Contact Author)

University of Bath - School of Management ( email )

Claverton Down
Bath, BA2 7AY
United Kingdom

HOME PAGE: http://www.sgbjohnson.com/

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