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Optimality Bias in Moral Judgment

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Document pages: 68 pages

Abstract: 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 optimality: 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 designs. Participants consistently distinguished between optimal and suboptimal choices, but not between suboptimal 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.

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