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Moral “taint” still seeps along blood lines

June 11, 2012
Special to World Science  

It may be un­fair, it may be an­ti­quated, but we are still blamed to some de­gree for the sins of our rel­a­tives, ac­cord­ing to a set of newly re­ported sur­veys.

Or­di­nary peo­ple “ex­hibit the in­tu­i­tion that in­di­vid­u­als are some­how tainted by the acts of per­sons with whom they share blood ties—even when they share lit­tle else,” wrote re­search­ers who de­scribed the find­ings in the May 31 ad­vance on­line is­sue of the jour­nal Cog­ni­tion.

“Our re­sults sug­gest that the ‘sins of the fa­ther’ prac­tices ob­served in the mod­ern and an­cient worlds are not en­tirely due to be­liefs about the so­cial ties held be­tween family mem­bers. Rath­er, they may be guid­ed by in­tu­i­tions about blood; that, much like phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal fea­tures, the taint of im­mor­al ac­tions is some­thing that spreads be­tween bi­o­log­i­cal rel­a­tives.”

Re­search­ers at Yale Uni­vers­ity and three oth­er in­sti­tu­tions car­ried out the stu­dy.

Of­fi­cially or openly as­crib­ing blame to the rel­a­tives of crim­i­nals is rare in mod­ern, well-ed­u­cat­ed so­ci­eties. Such prac­tices are largely rel­e­gat­ed to an­cient his­to­ry, in­clud­ing Bib­li­cal times, and to “honor- based cul­tures such as Al­ba­nia,” wrote the re­search­ers. There, “if one’s own family mem­ber is mur­dered, it is seen as jus­ti­fied to mur­der a mem­ber of the per­pe­tra­tor’s family in re­tri­bu­tion.”

Still, even in advanced societies, of­fi­cial prac­tice and gut feel­ings don’t al­ways match. 

The re­search­ers re­cruited 191 adults as study par­ti­ci­pants through an Ama­zon.com serv­ice known as Me­chan­i­cal Turk, which has al­so been used in past so­cial sci­ence re­search. A study pub­lished in the Aug. 2010 is­sue of the jour­nal Judg­ment and De­ci­sion Mak­ing con­clud­ed that study sub­jects re­cruited through the serv­ice were rea­sonably rep­re­sent­a­tive of the U.S. popula­t­ion.

The re­search­ers in the new study pre­sented their par­ti­ci­pant group with var­i­ous hy­po­thet­i­cal sce­nar­i­os, then asked them their feel­ings about cul­pa­bil­ity and re­spon­si­bil­ity among the char­ac­ters in these vi­gnettes.

In a first stu­dy, par­ti­ci­pants were told of a Depression-era fac­to­ry own­er who had got­ten wealthy while forc­ing dan­ger­ous, some­times deadly work­ing con­di­tions on his em­ploy­ees. This man had a liv­ing grand­child; some par­ti­ci­pants were told that the grand­child was re­lat­ed by blood, oth­ers that the rela­t­ion­ship was only through mar­riage. Ei­ther way, the grand­child had in­her­it­ed none of the for­tune—but he did re­cently win a lot­tery.

Par­ti­ci­pants were then asked wheth­er the grand­child should do­nate some of his win­nings to an educa­t­ion fund for the fac­to­ry vic­tims’ de­scen­dants, or to anoth­er char­ity; and to de­scribe their cer­tain­ty on a scale from one to nine, re­spec­tive­ly. The av­er­age re­sponse was 4.15 when the rela­t­ion­ship was by blood, and 5.28 when it was by mar­riage on­ly, the re­search­ers found.

In anoth­er sur­vey, the sce­nar­i­o was that a rob­ber had mur­dered a con­ven­ience store clerk; the only rec­ord of the event was a video­tape; and the po­lice had cap­tured two per­fect look-alikes, equally likely to be guilty. The ques­tion: should the po­lice lock both of them up while search­ing for fur­ther ev­i­dence? The only twist was that in some tell­ings of the sce­nar­i­o, the look-alikes were ac­tu­ally twins, where­as in oth­er tell­ings they were un­re­lat­ed. Fi­nal­ly, par­ti­ci­pants were asked wheth­er, on a scale of one to sev­en, both par­ti­ci­pants should def­i­nitely be locked up, or both def­i­nitely set free.

The av­er­age an­swer was 3.03 for twins, but 4.21 for un­re­lat­ed look-alikes.

In a third stu­dy, par­ti­ci­pants were simply asked flat-out wheth­er their “gut feel­ing” was that a child would be “some­how taint­ed” by a rel­a­tive’s ac­tions. They were giv­en a new sce­nar­io, this one about “Den­nis,” an adopt­ed child who dis­cov­ers that one of his rel­a­tives through his ori­gi­nal family was a war crim­i­nal. De­pend­ing on the tell­ing, this rel­a­tive was ei­ther his bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther, or merely his stepfa­ther; ei­ther way he is a strang­er to Den­nis. Par­ti­ci­pants were asked to state on a scale of one to sev­en, re­spec­tive­ly, wheth­er Den­nis is un­tainted, or tainted.

The av­er­age re­s­ponse: taint­ed­ness of 2.69 if the wrong­doer was the step­father; 3.57 if he was the bio­lo­gi­cal father.

The sim­plest rea­son why peo­ple may as­cribe taint to rel­a­tives of crim­i­nals is through “brute as­socia­t­ion,” the re­search­ers wrote. “For ex­am­ple, par­ti­ci­pants avoid in­di­vid­u­als who have a hair­cut si­m­i­lar to a per­son they dis­like.” How­ev­er, there may be log­i­cal, or simply prac­ti­cal rea­sons to do so, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors added. Par­ents may plau­sibly pass their mor­al val­ues on to their chil­dren. And as a de­ter­rent, threat­en­ing law­break­ers’ fam­i­lies with pun­ish­ment of­ten work­s—un­fair though it may be.

“A dif­fer­ent, yet com­pat­ible ex­plana­t­ion is that of common- sense es­sen­tial­ism—the no­tion that phys­i­cal ob­jects and liv­ing or­gan­isms have an un­der­ly­ing es­sence that makes them what they are,” the re­search­ers wrote. “In the case of liv­ing or­gan­isms, that un­der­ly­ing es­sence is as­sumed to be pas­sed on from par­ents to their chil­dren.” And while mod­ern ge­net­ics shows that traits really are inherited, they added, ma­ny peo­ple simply be­lieve it on a gut lev­el even if they know noth­ing about genes.


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It may be unfair and antiquated, but we’re still blamed to some degree for the sins of our relatives, according to a set of newly reported surveys. Ordinary people “exhibit the intuition that individuals are somehow tainted by the acts of persons with whom they share blood ties—even when they share little else,” wrote researchers who described the findings in the May 31 advance online issue of the journal Cognition. “Our results suggest that the ‘sins of the father’ practices observed in the modern and ancient worlds are not entirely due to beliefs about the social ties held between family members. Rather, they may be guided by intuitions about blood; that, much like physical and psychological features, the taint of immoral actions is something that spreads between biological relatives.” Researchers at Yale University and three other institutions carried out the study. Officially or openly ascribing blame or moral taint to the relatives of criminals is rare in modern, well-educated societies. Such practices are largely relegated to ancient history, including Biblical times, and to “honor- based cultures such as Albania,” wrote the researchers. In Albania, “if one’s own family member is murdered, it is seen as justified to murder a member of the perpetrator’s family in retribution.” But official practice and gut feelings don’t always match up. The researchers recruited 191 adults as study participants through an Amazon.com service known as Mechanical Turk, which has also been used in past social science research. A study published in the Aug. 2010 issue of the journal Judgment and Decision Making concluded that study subjects recruited through the service were reasonably representative of the U.S. population. The researchers in the new study presented their participant group with various hypothetical scenarios, then asked them their feelings about culpability and responsibility among the characters in these vignettes. In a first study, participants were told of a Depression-era factory owner who had gotten wealthy while forcing dangerous, sometimes deadly working conditions on his employees. This man had a living grandchild; some participants were told that the grandchild was related by blood, others that the relationship was only through marriage. Either way, the grandchild had inherited none of the fortune—but he did recently win a lottery. Participants were then asked whether the grandchild should donate some of his winnings to an education fund for the factory victims’ descendants, or to another charity; and to describe their certainty on a scale from one to nine, respectively. The average response was 4.15 when the relationship was by blood, and 5.28 when it was by marriage only, the researchers found. In another survey, the scenario was that a robber had murdered a convenience store clerk; the only record of the event was a videotape; and the police had captured two perfect look-alikes, equally likely to be guilty. The question: should the police lock both of them up while searching for further evidence? The only twist was that in some tellings of the scenario, the look-alikes were actually twins, whereas in other tellings they were unrelated. Finally, participants were asked whether, on a scale of one to seven, both participants should definitely be locked up, or both definitely set free. The average answer was 3.03 for twins, but 4.21 for unrelated look-alikes. In a third study, participants were simply asked flat-out whether their “gut feeling” was that a child would be “somehow tainted” by a relative’s actions. They were given a hypothetical scenario about Dennis, an adopted child who discovers that one of his relatives is a war criminal. This relative is either the biological father, or merely a stepfather, but either way a stranger to Dennis. Participants were asked to state on a scale of one to seven, respectively, whether Dennis was untainted, or tainted. The average reseponse: taintedness of 2.69 for non-blood relatives, 3.57 for blood relatives. The simplest reason why people may ascribe blame to relatives of criminals is through “brute association,” the researchers wrote. “For example, participants avoid individuals who have a haircut similar to a person they dislike.” However, there may be logical, or simply practical reasons to do so, the investigators added. Parents may plausibly pass their moral values on to their children. And as a deterrent, threatening lawbreakers’ families with punishment often works—unfair though it may be. “A different, yet compatible explanation is that of common- sense essentialism—the notion that physical objects and living organisms have an underlying essence that makes them what they are,” the researchers wrote. “In the case of living organisms, that underlying essence is assumed to be passed on from parents to their children.” And while modern genetics shows there is some truth to this, they added, many people simply believe it on a gut level even if they know nothing of genetics.