Optimality bias in moral judgment

Julian De Freitas, Samuel G. B. Johnson

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15 Citations (SciVal)
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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 op- timality: 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 de- signs. Participants consistently distinguished between optimal and suboptimal choices, but not between sub- optimal 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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)149-163
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
Early online date2 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2018


  • Moral judgement
  • Lay decision theory
  • Theory of mind
  • Decision-making
  • Casual attribution


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