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Social Psychology on Culpable States of Mind - Dictionary of Arguments

Parisi I 142
Culpable States of Mind/law/Social psychology/Nadler/Mueller: Both criminal and civil law distinguish various culpable states of mind, for example negligence, recklessness, knowledge, and intent (see Model Penal Code S2.02; Restatement (Second) of Torts § 8A). These codifications assume that jurors and judges perceive culpable mental states in a way that allows them to reliably classify them into these categories, which may seem a tall order when one considers that not even courts are always consistent in drawing distinctions between culpable states of mind (Simons, 1992)(1).
Social psychology: In everyday life, people constantly make inferences about other people's mental states, and the extent to which these assessments are aligned with the MPC (Model Penal Code) categories is an important empirical question. Within the context of the justice system (and perhaps in all social perception; see Malle and Holbrook, 2012)(2), intentionality is the fundamental mental state. The literally vital role of assessing intentions ("is that person friend or foe?") leads to the primacy ofthese judgments (Fiske, Cuddy, and Glick, 2007)(3).
Perception: Research on lay perceptions of legally culpable states of mind has yielded mixed results. Severance, Goodman, and Loftus ( 1992)(4) found that participants were quite poor at distinguishing mental states, and could only reliably separate intentional and negligent harms. By contrast, Robinson and Darley (1995)(5) found that intuitions about liability and punishment generally tracked Model Penal Code state of mind categories.
Cross-cultural studies: In a cross-cultural study, assessments of state of mind differed strongly across harm vignettes (...); nevertheless, in three out of four scenarios, people's inferences did not comport well
Parisi I 143
with MPC categories (Levinson, 2005)(6).
Cultural differences: Interestingly, in this study, Chinese participants systematically inferred greater state of mind culpability than American participants. Other research has suggested that collectivist cultures, including the Chinese, give more weight to situational factors than dispositional factors when explaining behavior (e.g., Morris and Peng, 1994)(7); however, these studies do not specifically assess perceptions of culpability or responsibility.
Recklessness/knowing: More recently, a set of studies by Shen and colleagues suggests that people blame and punish in line with the MPC categories of blameless, negligent, and purposeful, but that they are poor at distinguishing knowing and reckless states of mind (Shen et al., 2011)(8). They point out one real-world consequence of this diffculty: being found guilty of a reckless killing versus a knowing killing can be the difference between a two-year and a forty-eight-year sentence.
Intentionality: Assessments of intentionality are also influenced by motivation (Mueller, Solan, and Darley, 2012(9); Ditto, Pizarro, and Tannenbaum, 2009(10)). For example, when told that a more serious penalty depends on whether the employer intentionally harmed an employee, mock jurors are willing to perceive a minimally culpable state of mind (i.e. negligent), or a minimal perception of risk (3 %), as an intentional harm (Mueller, Solan and Darley, 2012)(9). At the same time, when asked to categorize the employer's state of mind on a five-point scale based on MPC categories, 88% of these participants accurately identified negligent behavior, and 96% accurately identified reckless behavior.
These results indicate that even in situations where people are able to categorize mental states accurately, these nuanced distinctions may be overridden by their attributions of moral culpability and desire to punish a wrongdoer.


1. Simons, Kenneth W. (1992). "Rethinking Mental States." BUL Rev. 72:463.
2. Malle, Bertram F. and Jess Holbrook (2012). "Is There a Hierarchy of Social Inferences? The Likelihood and Speed of Inferring Intentionality, Mind, and Personality." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102(4):661.
3. Fiske, S. T., A. J. C. Cuddy, and P. Glick (2007). "Universal Dimensions of Social Cognition: Warmth and Competence." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 1 1 (2):77-83. doi:16/ j.tics.2006.11.005.
4. Severance, Laurence J., Jane Goodman, and Elizabeth F. Loftus (1992). "Inferring the Criminal Mind: Toward a Bridge Between Legal Doctrine and Psychological Understanding." Journal of Criminal Justice 20(2): 107-120.
5. Robinson, P. H. and J. M. Darley (1995). Justice, Liability, and Blame: Community Views and
the Criminal Law. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
6. Levinson, Justin D. (2005). "Mentally Misguided: How State of Mind Inquiries Ignore Psychological Reality and Overlook Cultural Differences." Howard LJ 49: 1.
7. Morris, Michael W. and Kaiping Peng (1994). "Culture and Cause: American and Chinese Attributions for Social and Physical Events." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67(6):949
8. Shen, Francis X., Morris B. Hoffman, Owen D. Jones, Joshua D. Greene, and René Marois
(2011). "Sorting Guilty Minds." New York University Law Review 86: 1306-1360.
9. Mueller, Pam A., Lawrence M. Solan, and John M. Darley (2012). "When Does Knowledge
Become Intent? Perceiving the Minds of Wrongdoers." Journal of Empirical Legal studies 9(4):859-892.
10. Ditto, Peter H., David A. Pizarro, and David Tannenbaum (2009). "Motivated Moral Reasoning." Psychology of Learning and Motivation 50:307-338.

Nadler, Janice and Pam A. Mueller. „Social Psychology and the Law“. In: Parisi, Francesco (ed) (2017). The Oxford Handbook of Law and Economics. Vol 1: Methodology and Concepts. NY: Oxford University Press


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Social Psychology
Parisi I
Francesco Parisi (Ed)
The Oxford Handbook of Law and Economics: Volume 1: Methodology and Concepts New York 2017


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