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 scenario: “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 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?
- Goranson, A., Sheeran, P., Katz, J., & Gray, K. (2020). Doctors are seen as Godlike: Moral typecasting in medicine. Social Science & Medicine, 258, 113008.
- Gray, K., & Wegner, D. M. (2009). Moral typecasting: divergent perceptions of moral agents and moral patients. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(3), 505.
- Miller, A. L., & Borgida, E. (2016). Moral typecasting underlies punitive responses to crime. Law and Human Behavior, 40(6), 697-706.
- Reynolds, T., Howard, C., Sjåstad, H., Zhu, L., Okimoto, T. G., Baumeister, R. F., … & Kim, J. (2020). Man up and take it: Gender bias in moral typecasting. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 161, 120-141.
- Schein, C., & Gray, K. (2018). The theory of dyadic morality: Reinventing moral judgment by redefining harm. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 22(1), 32-70.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.