How much for a transitive? Subtle linguistic cues influence blame and punishment


When bad things happen, how do we decide who is to blame and how much they should be punished? In this paper we examined whether subtly different linguistic descriptions of accidents influence how much people blame and punish those involved. In three studies, participants judged how much people involved in particular accidents should be blamed and how much they should have to pay for resulting damage. The language used to describe the accidents differed subtly between conditions: either agentive (transitive) or non-agentive (intransitive) verb forms were used. Agentive descriptions led participants to attribute more blame and request higher financial penalties than non-agentive descriptions. Further, linguistic framing influenced judgments even when participants reasoned about a well-known event like the ‘wardrobe malfunction’ of Super Bowl 2004. Importantly, this effect of language held even when people were able to see the event for themselves on video. These results demonstrate that even when people have rich established knowledge and visual information about events, linguistic framing can shape event construal, with important real-world consequences. Subtle differences in linguistic descriptions can change the way people construe what happened and how they attribute blame and dole out punishment.

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