Future offenses cause more intense feelings than past actions, Chicago Booth study finds

October 21, 2010

People feel worse about a transgression that will take place in the future than an identical one that occurred in the past, according to new research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Thinking about future events tends to stir up more emotions than events in the past, said Eugene Caruso, an assistant professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth who conducted the research which appeared recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Whether an event has happened or will happen, can affect people's perceptions of fairness and morality, such that judgments will tend to be more extreme for offenses that could happen in the future rather than those that already took place, he found.

In one of the study's experiments, participants were asked how they felt about a soft drink vending machine that automatically raised prices in hot weather. When told that the vending machine would be tested the following month, participants felt more strongly that adjusting prices was unfair compared to another group that was told that the machine had been tested in the previous month.

People also are more likely to think that a future offense deserves harsher punishment. In another experiment, participants were told about a dilemma faced by two late-night TV hosts in December 2007 when their shows' writers went on strike.

The hosts eventually chose to go back on the air without the writers. The group of participants that was told about this decision a week before the shows returned thought that the move was less acceptable than the group that was informed a week after the shows were broadcasted. Moreover, the group that was told in advance said they would watch the shows less.

That future events evoke more intense emotional responses also applies to good deeds. The results of another experiment show that a large charitable donation made people feel better, and rate the donation as more generous, when it would be made in the future than when it was given in the past.

Why then is the future more evocative than the past? In general, people respond to future situations with heightened emotions as a way to prepare themselves for action, Caruso said. Thus, even though they do not actually have control over something that is about to happen -- as the study's experiments show -- this "overlearned" response to the future persists.

Moreover, people seem to be good at rationalizing and making sense of emotional experiences. Once these events have passed, they become ordinary and the emotions associated with them less extreme.

If past harm is indeed perceived as less severe than future harm, then one perverse consequence is that past injustices will be generally met with less severe punishment than future misdeeds. Thus, those looking to behave unethically may take advantage of the knowledge that people tend to forgive past transgressions more leniently than future ones. This can apply to individuals, corporations, or governments that decide to engage in risky or unethical behavior with the expectation that the consequences will be less severe once their actions have taken place.

A tobacco company, for instance, that wants to introduce a potentially harmful but profitable new product may come to the conclusion that it is better to proceed and deal with the consequences after the fact. Although the fallout for any unethical action may be severe, those evaluating the decision once it has passed may judge it relatively less harshly than those contemplating it before it has started.
-end-


University of Chicago

Related Emotions Articles from Brightsurf:

Why are memories attached to emotions so strong?
Multiple neurons in the brain must fire in synchrony to create persistent memories tied to intense emotions, new research from Columbia neuroscientists has found.

The relationship between looking/listening and human emotions
Toyohashi University of Technology has indicated that the relationship between attentional states in response to pictures and sounds and the emotions elicited by them may be different in visual perception and auditory perception.

Multitasking in the workplace can lead to negative emotions
From writing papers to answering emails, it's common for office workers to juggle multiple tasks at once.

Do ER caregivers' on-the-job emotions affect patient care?
Doctors and nurses in emergency departments at four academic centers and four community hospitals in the Northeast reported a wide range of emotions triggered by patients, hospital resources and societal factors, according to a qualitative study led by a University of Massachusetts Amherst social psychologist.

The 'place' of emotions
The entire set of our emotions is mapped in a small region of the brain, a 3 centimeters area of the cortex, according to a study conducted at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, Italy.

Faking emotions at work does more harm than good
Faking your emotions at work to appear more positive likely does more harm than good, according to a University of Arizona researcher.

Students do better in school when they can understand, manage emotions
Students who are better able to understand and manage their emotions effectively, a skill known as emotional intelligence, do better at school than their less skilled peers, as measured by grades and standardized test scores, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

How people want to feel determines whether others can influence their emotions
New Stanford research on emotions shows that people's motivations are a driving factor behind how much they allow others to influence their feelings, such as anger.

Moral emotions, a diagnotic tool for frontotemporal dementia?
A study conducted by Marc Teichmann and Carole Azuar at the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris (France) and at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital shows a particularly marked impairment of moral emotions in patients with frontotemporal dementia (FTD).

Emotions from touch
Touching different types of surfaces may incur certain emotions. This was the conclusion made by the psychologists from the Higher School of Economics in a recent empirical study.

Read More: Emotions News and Emotions Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.