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What Is… Moral Typecasting

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In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is moral typecasting.

Moral typecasting is a concept first described in a 2009 paper by psychologists Kurt Grey and Daniel Wegner. Not everyone agrees that it’s actually a thing, but it’s an interesting idea. It involves casting people as either moral agents or patients, so let’s first look at what those things are.

Moral agents and patients

According to Grey and Wegner’s theory, we use a moral perspective to evaluate situations in which the target of an action can be helped or harmed based on their ability to experience pleasurable or painful consequences as a result of he action.

Moral agents are people performing such actions (whether those actions are morally right or morally wrong). Agency is associated with thinking and doing, and includes things like self-control, planning, and communication. We tend to view moral agents as being responsible for harm that occurs.

Moral patients are those who have right or wrong things done to them. Moral patiency is associated with experiencing both positive and negative sensations and emotions like fear, pain, pleasure, and desire, as well as vulnerability and sensitivity to harm.

In moral contexts, Gray and Wegner suggested that observers interpret those acts through a dyadic template, polarizing someone as moral agent and someone else as moral patient. A paper by Schein and Gray gave this interesting example secenario: “The man intentionally gished the little girl, who cried.” Despite not knowing what the word gish means (because it doesn’t exist), you’ve probably made a moral judgment about the man having harmed the girl.

Intentions make a difference in our evaluations of agency, but we can’t directly know someone’s intentions. We also can’t directly know someone’s experiences of suffering, and causation isn’t necessarily obvious either.

Moral typecasting

Moral typecasting is the idea that when we evaluate individuals’ moral agency or moral patiency in specific situations, we tend to extend that so it shapes how we evaluate those individuals in general. The more we see someone as a moral agent, the less able we are to conceive of them being a moral patient, and vice versa. That means that when we see people as being high in agency, we see them as less sensitive to pain and suffering and less deserving of assistance. When we see someone as a moral patient, we’re likely to see them as less responsible for their actions and more deserving of sympathy

Gray and Wegner conducted a study in which people were asked to divide up pills that hypothetically caused pain or pleasure between pairs of targets. Pain pill distribution was highest to a bad moral agent (Ted Bundy), followed by good moral agents (the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa), then neutral targets (teacher, radiology technician), then moral patients (orphan, rape victim). Study participants distributed pleasure pills in the reverse order from the pain pill distribution. The researchers suggested that good moral agents were seen as less sensitive to both pain and pleasure than neutral targets and moral patients were, and therefore, despite their good deeds, they may not be treated as well as moral patients.

Typecasting as moral agents may explain why it’s easy for heroes to fall from grace. If we see a hero as having agency, we may be more likely to assign blame to them compared to if someone we see as a victim were to perpetrate wrongs.

I first stumbled across the concept of moral patiency quite recently while reading about concept creep. Concept creep involves expanding ideas about what’s considered harmful, and it can lead to more actions and experiences being viewed as having a moral aspect. This can lead to more people being seen (and seeing themselves) in the moral patient role, which may reduce their agency.

Moral typecasting and the medical profession

In a study by Goranson and colleagues, members of the public perceived doctors to be thinkers and doers who were very high in agency, including self-control, remembering details, and planning for the future. However, the public didn’t perceive doctors to be strong feelers, instead seeing them as having a low vulnerability to pain, fear, embarrassment, and hunger.

The researchers suggested that the “thinking but not feeling” typecast could explain why people are sometimes surprised when doctors are fallible and can’t come up with a diagnosis or recommendation for effective treatment.

Patients, on the other hand, may be typecast as feelers but not thinkers, which may contribute to patients’ perceptions of being treated paternalistically.

Gender bias and typecasting

Reynolds and colleagues did a series of studies looking at people’s perceptions of agency in patiency in scenarios involving sexual harassment on the part of male or female workers in the workplace. They found that females were more likely to be typecast into the moral patient role and males were more likely to be typecast as moral agents.

In scenarios where a male or female performed the same harassing action, the male was seen as more responsible and more deserving of punishment for his actions. When the victim was male, they were perceived as less of a victim and having experienced less harm than a female who was the target of the same action.

Getting back to the idea of concept creep, people with broader conceptions of sexism have been found to be more likely to typecast female targets of sexual harassment as moral patients and perpetrators as moral agents.

Punitive responses to criminals

Moral typecasting may also come into play in criminal punishment. In one study, when participants were told that someone had been a victim of crime, then told that the same person had perpetrated a particular crime, they viewed that person as having less moral agency than individuals who committed the same crime without having previously been victims. This also translated into lower sentencing recommendations. Criminal offenders seen as having high moral agency were viewed as being more responsible and deserving of greater punishment.


Even if the critics of this theory are right and it’s not a great explanation for how people morally evaluate things, it’s still interesting to think about. I think we do have a tendency to put people in boxes and try to keep them there, and it makes sense to me that we’d do that when it comes to moral evaluations. What are your thoughts?

References

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

25 thoughts on “What Is… Moral Typecasting”

  1. Interesting article and we are operating with a lot of incomplete information in a general sense. But, I think of it this way. For my doctor to consider me a moral agent or not, my doctor is probably looking at my patterns of behavior… and then, will make inferences as to how much help I need. I’m unsure whether this constitutes more complete information than I, the patient, realizes. Or not.

  2. I put people into boxes. It’s a very bad habit. I take them out when I notice, but it is a trait.

    “That means that when we see people as being high in agency, we see them as less sensitive to pain and suffering and less deserving of assistance. When we see someone as a moral patient, we’re likely to see them as less responsible for their actions and more deserving of sympathy.”\

    We see the above on social media all the time. Perhaps it’s human, perhaps it’s envy, but I recognize the tendency to think that people who are well off and successful are less deserving of sympathy when bad things happen.

    1. I think that’s probably human, and it’s probably consistent with the just world fallacy. It’s hard to avoid that feeling that the world should be fair even though it’s not.

  3. Thanks so much for the post. I read it several times to be sure I got it. What is confusing to me is the use of the word “moral” when we are talking about behavior on the part of the agents or the patients. It seems to me if I am reading correctly that agents or patients may be acting in a way that is good or bad or “moral” or “immoral” or somewhere in between. Calling folks moral agents or moral patients thereby confuses me. Sorry to get so caught up in the nomenclature. I guess I am just stuck in my own little world of assumptions and have a hard time getting out of that box. Not so yeah me….

    1. In this context, moral doesn’t refer specifically to good or bad, but rather we evaluate the situation through a moral lens. So if I read the statement “he opened the door”, I’m not evaluating that statement morally. On the other hand, if the statement was “he opened the door and she fell down”, that involves one person acting and another person seeming to experience harm as a result of that action, so that’s a situation I’m likely to evaluate morally.

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