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'Heroes' Judged Harshly for Bad Behavior, Study Finds

SATURDAY, Feb. 26 (HealthDay News) -- Your past record of good deeds won't help you escape blame when you do something wrong, suggests a new study. But you may get off easier if you're perceived as a victim.

U.S. researchers looked at study participants' reactions to a number of fictional scenarios representing real-life transgressions, ranging from stealing money to harming another person.

The results showed that, no matter how many previous good deeds a person had done, they received just as much blame -- if not more -- than people with less heroic backgrounds.

"People may come down even harder on someone like the Dalai Lama than they do on 'Joe Blow,'" study author Kurt Gray, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, said in a university news release.

"However, in our research those who have suffered in the past received significantly less blame, even if such suffering was both totally unrelated to the misdeed and long since past," he added.

The study findings are published in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

"Our research suggests that morality is not like some kind of cosmic bank, where you can deposit good deeds and use them to offset future misdeeds. Instead, people ignore heroic pasts, or even count them against you, when assigning blame," said Gray, director of the university's Mind Perception and Morality Lab.

In fact, people tend to simply divide the world up into do-gooders and evil-doers, so "psychologically, the perceived distance between a hero and a villain is quite small, whereas there's a wide gap between a villain and a victim. This means that heroes are easily recast as evil-doers, whereas it's very hard to turn a victim into a villain," Gray explained.

More information

Visit the University of Maryland's Mind Perception and Morality Lab for more on this research.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: University of Maryland, news release, Feb. 16, 2011

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