Early investigations into the effect of distance between negligent acts and subsequent harm demonstrated a causal proximity bias in judgments of blame. Specifically, fewer mediating steps between a negligent act and subsequent harm resulted in more blameworthy defendants. However, we reasoned that sometimes extra steps in a causal chain could be viewed as additional opportunities for the defendant to intervene and prevent a harmful outcome. Therefore, extra steps, or increased causal distance, without intervention by the defendant would make the defendant seem more blameworthy. Across three studies (N = 338), we demonstrated that although reversing the causal proximity bias is relatively easy, obtaining the original causal proximity bias is surprisingly difficult. We argue that increasing the number of causal steps to an outcome can be perceived as missed opportunities for the perpetrator to take corrective action. Therefore, the more steps to an outcome, the more blameworthy a defendant is judged.
Scott Frenga, Kimberly Schweitzera and Sean McCrea, Reversal of Fortune: When Does Increased Distance from an Initial Negligent Act Make One More Blameworthy? Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, DOI: 10.1080/13218719.2015.1021735. Published online: 30 Mar 2015.