Tuesday, August 23, 2016

assessment of danger may depend on level of outrage

Researchers looked at this fact...
In the United States today, leaving children unsupervised is grounds for moral outrage and can lead to criminal charges.
...and decided to learn why people blame parents for putting their children in danger even when the risk of danger is objectively very low.

Why are people outraged when they see--or read about--a parent who leaves a child unattended even when the child is in no danger?
The odds that a child will be abducted by a stranger — one of the fears that motivates constant supervision — are tiny in comparison with the odds that a child will be injured in a car accident. Yet parents aren't under investigation for choosing to drive their kids to school. 
So here's another possibility. It's not that risks to children have increased, provoking an increase in moral outrage when children are left unattended. Instead, it could be that moral attitudes toward parenting have changed, such that leaving children unsupervised is now judged morally wrong. And because it's judged morally wrong, people overestimate the risk. 
This may seem to get things the wrong way around, but it's supported by new research available Monday in the open access journal Collabra. In a series of clever experiments, authors Ashley Thomas, Kyle Stanford and Barbara Sarnecka find evidence that shifting people's moral attitudes toward a parent influences the perceived risk to that parent's unattended child.
In essence, the more immoral people think the parent was in leaving the child alone, the greater the perception of risk for the child.
...would you feel differently about this risk if the circumstances were otherwise the same, but the parents had left the child unattended by accident, or to go to work? In other words, would decreasing the moral outrage one feels toward the parents decrease the perception of risk to the child? 
To get at this question experimentally, Thomas and her collaborators created a series of vignettes in which a parent left a child unattended for some period of time, and participants indicated the risk of harm to the child during that period. For example, in one vignette, a 10-month-old was left alone for 15 minutes, asleep in the car in a cool, underground parking garage. In another vignette, an 8-year-old was left for an hour at a Starbucks, one block away from her parent's location 
To experimentally manipulate participants' moral attitude toward the parent, the experimenters varied the reason the child was left unattended across a set of six experiments with over 1,300 online participants. In some cases, the child was left alone unintentionally (for example, in one case, a mother is hit by a car and knocked unconscious after buckling her child into her car seat, thereby leaving the child unattended in the car seat). In other cases, the child was left unattended so the parent could go to work, do some volunteering, relax or meet a lover. 
Not surprisingly, the parent's reason for leaving a child unattended affected participants' judgments of whether the parent had done something immoral: Ratings were over 3 on a 10-point scale even when the child was left unattended unintentionally, but they skyrocketed to nearly 8 when the parent left to meet a lover. [My emphasis.]
If people let their moral disapproval raise perceived risk beyond the actual risk--the child could be kidnapped!, even when kidnappings-by-stranger are exceptionally rare--imagine how unrealistic their risk assessments of sex offenders must be.

By far, registered citizens are non-violent offenders and--again--by far, will not commit another sex offense. Yet, a list of those offenders is maintained at great expense and communities are warned about sex offenders among them as if their presence puts everyone at risk of sexual assault.

The very existence of the registry encourages outrage toward all who are listed there.

The danger is very low and yet the moral disapproval of registrants leads people to exaggerate the danger. No matter the variation in crimes and levels of seriousness, all sex offenders are seen as dangerous.

Outrageously dangerous.

The registry has increased the opportunity to be outraged about sex offenders as the number of registrable offenses has grown. In some states, labeling public urination as a sex offense has taken what used to be risible and turned it into something deserving of public shame. Instead of telling funny stories (or singing a song!) about a young man streaking across a football field, a young man committed suicide because he faced a life of public shaming on the registry after his arrest for streaking.

Think of that. We are seeing moral outrage aimed at people who committed "crimes" that used to be hijinks. Those hijinks landed them on a list--a list that is used to gin up outrage. Labeling someone as a sex offender opens them up to out-sized moral outrage by people who see only the label.

The moral outrage is greater than some of the crimes deserve and the perception of danger grows right along with the outrage.

Just as moral outrage towards parents has increased, so has the moral outrage toward sex offenders. Just as the danger of leaving a child out of sight has been exaggerated, so has the danger of being near a registered sex offender.

The only way to cool down the unwarranted outrage--and the accompanying exaggeration of danger-- is to abolish the registry altogether.

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