A person, who acts immorally or recklessly but is "lucky" by escaping dire consequences, is judged less harshly than an "unlucky" person, even when both have committed the same act.
The study, "Beliefs in Moral Luck: When and Why Blame Hinges on Luck," is co-authored by Lench, along with Rachel Smallman and Kathleen Darbor, also of Texas A&M, and Darren Domsky of Texas A&M at Galveston, and will be published in the British Journal of Psychology.
"Moral luck" is a term used in philosophy that describes situations in which a person is subjected to moral judgments by others despite the fact that the assessment is based on factors beyond his or her control, i.e. "luck."
Lench, who specializes in emotion and cognition - how emotions influence our thinking - explains that test subjects were given a hypothetical situation in which two men stand on a highway overpass and each blindly tosses a brick down onto the traffic below. One brick is red and the other is green. One brick hits the pavement harming no one, but the other smashes through a car roof, killing someone. The two committed the same immoral act, yet one was lucky that no one was killed.
The two men are arrested and test subjects were asked if the two men are equally blameworthy, deserving of the same punishment. In other words, do we need to know the color of the brick to be able to punish them or do they deserve the same punishment regardless of one being luckier than the other?
"We found that when people were faced with this scenario, more of them placed the blame on the man that killed someone," Lench explains. "Both threw a brick, so logically they should both be held accountable, but the lucky guy gets away with it."
She adds the test subjects were also asked whether they believed, in general, that people should be punished based on their actions - what they intended to do - or whether or not their actions happened to hurt someone. "In general, people reported that the luck of the outcome shouldn't matter and that offenders should be judged based on intent," she says. "However, when faced with the consequences, emotions come into play and they judge based on the outcome rather than the intent."
Lench likens the brick scenario to drunk driving. "When two people drive drunk, but one hits and kills a child, he is punished more severely than the man who didn't hurt anyone, although they committed the same offense of drunk driving - it's just that one got lucky.
"Generally we have a hard time incorporating our abstract beliefs about the way we think the world should work into how it actually works," she notes. "In the abstract, we don't value luck, but in our actual judgments of others, we do."