I have several lines of research centered on the theme of blame and punishment.

Historicist Thinking: Mitigating Blame, Increasing Compassion

A central concept in my research is historicist thinking. In the context of social cognition, historicist thinking means understanding the current actions of a person or group as a natural consequence of their prior life experiences. When our thinking is historicist, we conclude: With that life history, of course s/he is <insert characteristic here>.

I am particularly interested in links between historicist thinking and blame. In one set of studies (Gill & Cerce, 2017), we explored how and why historicist narratives—story-like accounts of a person’s life history that explain her current actions—temper blame. We manipulated whether participants received a historicist narrative regarding a transgressor. Results indicated that historicist narratives reduced blame and spiteful punishment motives — Make him suffer! — but did not reduce the broader goal of holding the transgressor accountable. Of theoretical importance, we showed that these effects happen via a unique mechanism. To highlight this unique mechanism, we presented evidence that historicist narratives do not operate through previously established mechanisms. Namely, they do not change perceptions of the transgressor’s bad motives, they do not change perceived likelihood of future transgressions, and they do not change perceptions that the transgressor can choose to behave better. This last perception refers to the transgressor’s freedom of action, or free will. We proposed that historicist narratives mitigate blame by changing free will perceptions, but that freedom of action is not the relevant concept of free will. Instead, we showed that historicist narratives reduce perceived control of self-formation, or the extent to which the transgressor appears to have freely created his own personality. He never willed to have the will he has.

In follow-up work, we have shown that the blame mitigation associated with historicist narratives is less certain than the mitigation associated with biological narratives (e.g., brain damage), and thus the former is more easily disrupted than the later (Gill & Ungson, 2018). We have also shown that historicist narratives lose some of their blame-mitigating effectiveness when the transgressor appears to comprehend her own narrative. In that case, she is assumed to be more cognizant of the harm caused by her bad behavior (Gill & Thalla, 2020).

Although most of my current research focuses on individual transgressors, my work on historicist narratives—minus the label—began in the intergroup domain. We have shown that historicist narratives regarding marginalized outgroups heighten compassion for the outgroup (Andreychik & Gill, 2009; Gill, Andreychik, & Getty, 2013), increase guilt upon admitting to derogatory thoughts about them (Gill & Andreychik, 2007), and increase the extent to which the outgroup automatically activates empathy-based rather than prejudice-based implicit associations (Andreychik & Gill, 2012).

Historicist Explanatory Style

The work in the preceding section focused on effects that flow from contemplating the unique formative history of a particular person or group. In another line of research, I have explored the possibility that people vary in the extent to which they embrace a lay historicist theory, or belief that—as a general, decontextualized fact—people’s personalities are profoundly molded by their life histories. Gill and Andreychik (2014) presented and validated a scale to measure lay historicist theories. Currently, we (Gill, Andreychik, & Getty) are preparing to submit a paper that describes eight studies documenting the diverse impacts of lay historicism. The studies show that lay historicists are higher in dispositional compassion-proneness, mediated by a belief that suffering lies behind people’s bad actions and bad life outcomes. They are also lower in dispositional blame intensity, mediated by a belief that people generally lack full control of their self-formation (cf. Gill & Cerce, 2017). Other studies show that lay historicists prefer humane criminal justice policies to harsh criminal justice policies, they impute an unfortunate history about a particular transgressor even when none is explicitly presented, they are less judgmental toward an irresponsible peer following a face-to-face interaction, and they show less implicit blame toward a violent transgressor. In short, there are individual differences in lay historicism that are predictive of broad tendencies toward humane responding to others.

Blame Intensity Inventory

Understanding how to ameliorate over-blaming is a major theme of my work. I thought that such understanding would be facilitated by developing a tool to assess individual differences in the propensity for harsh blame responses. Thus, my students and I have developed the Blame Intensity Inventory. An article about the scale is currently under revision at PSPB. Blame Intensity is unrelated to broad personality traits (e.g., the Big Five), affective dispositions (e.g., Negative Affectivity), and empathy (e.g., Empathic Concern). It is heightened among those who are simple-minded about causes of behavior (i.e., low in Attributional Complexity) and, interestingly, among those who score high on the Individualizing Foundations of morality. Across three experiments we show that Blame Intensity uniquely predicts—controlling for other predictors—an important phenomenon: Malicious justice-related satisfaction, or gratification upon learning that an offender has been brutally victimized (e.g., I am pleased that my former roommate was killed in a traffic accident after she stole from me). Blame can be nasty.

Blame and Communication

In interpersonal contexts, over-blaming can have destructive effects because of how blame translates into communication. When we blame a person intensely, we communicate harshly, signaling rejection, condemnation, disgust, character derogation, and so on, toward the blamed person. In one study of this issue, we invited participants to communicate with a classmate who was dominating and insulting others during class discussions. We manipulated whether they received a historicist narrative regarding the rude classmate. We found that those who received the historicist narrative were better able to communicate their displeasure regarding the rude behavior while also adopting a respectful tone. Those who did not receive the historicist narrative were more likely to be overtly insulting and harsh. An independent group of participants were invited to imagine receiving the different communications created by those communicating with the rude classmate. They indicated that if they received the harsh communication, they would be angry and unlikely to listen to the communicator. These results help us see how harsh blame fosters communication that is unlikely to be constructive. Currently, my Ph.D. student, Sine Zungu, is extending this work into the domain of communication about racial injustice. Communication about racial injustice needs to happen. As a society, we must reckon with past and present injustices and strive to make things right. What must happen in order to make such communication constructive? How can we facilitate White people receiving messages about racial injustice without feeling “attacked” and becoming defensive? These questions are now a major focus in the Blame Lab.