Estimating a renowned man's character

Have you ever wondered how politicians, athletes, and public figures can get away with scandal after scandal for most of their careers and then receive laudatory obituaries when they die? How do they resurrect their reputations following major ethical breaches? One way appears to be via a death-bed conversion. In a recent study by George Newman, Kristi Lockhart, and Frank Keil (2010), people judged the moral character of a person based on a brief description of their good and bad activities throughout their lives. You might think that reputations would be made based on the sum total of a person’s life work, but it turns out that their actions just before their death are the most important. A person who was a louse for most of their life but turned good at the end is judged to be more moral than someone who was good throughout their life but turned to the dark side at the end. That’s why Star Wars fans have a more positive view of Darth Vader—he helped Luke in the end. This end-of-life bias suggests that we treat a person’s most recent actions as the best estimate of their true underlying nature. The bias is so strong that people who were good at the beginning of their life but bad thereafter are judged to be less moral than people who were genuinely bad throughout their life! Unfortunately for slimy politicians, the redemption effect seems to depend at least partly on dying just after seeing the light.

Source cited:
Newman GE, Lockhart KL, & Keil FC (2010). “End-of-life” biases in moral evaluations of others. Cognition, 115 (2), 343-9 PMID: 20138612

(The title of this post is an allusion to Mark Twain: “To arrive at a just estimate of a renowned man’s character one must judge it by the standards of his time, not ours.” It seems that the judgment comes when the man’s time is up …)

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