Allocating moral responsibility to multiple agents

Ana P. Gantman, Anni Sternisko, Peter M. Gollwitzer, Gabriele Oettingen, Jay J. Van Bavel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Moral and immoral actions often involve multiple individuals who play different roles in bringing about the outcome. For example, one agent may deliberate and decide what to do while another may plan and implement that decision. We suggest that the Mindset Theory of Action Phases provides a useful lens through which to understand these cases and the implications that these different roles, which correspond to different mindsets, have for judgments of moral responsibility. In Experiment 1, participants learned about a disastrous oil spill in which one company made decisions about a faulty oil rig, and another installed that rig. Participants judged the company who made decisions as more responsible than the company who implemented them. In Experiment 2 and a direct replication, we tested whether people judge implementers to be morally responsible at all. We examined a known asymmetry in blame and praise. Moral agents received blame for actions that resulted in a bad outcome but not praise for the same action that resulted in a good outcome. We found this asymmetry for deciders but not implementers, an indication that implementers were judged through a moral lens to a lesser extent than deciders. Implications for allocating moral responsibility across multiple agents are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104027
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
StatePublished - Nov 2020


  • Action phases
  • Causality
  • Intentionality
  • Morality
  • Side Effect Effect

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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