Condemnation is fun, but numbers are boring.  What are we supposed to do, then, when condemnation requires numbers?  Suppose you want to condemn a parent for putting his child in grave danger, but your knowledge of actual risks is hazy at best.  The simplest approach is to do what Kahneman calls “answering an easier question.”  Leap to morally judge the parent, then pretend your moral judgment implies a risk assessment. 

Does anyone really use this silly shortcut?  Yes!   Thomas et al.’s “No Child Left Alone: Moral Judgments About Parents Affect Estimate of Risk to Children” (Collabra, 2016) runs a series of experiments to test for the presence of what I call “moral causation.”  Background:

Research in other domains has shown that moral judgments do affect people’s estimates of harm. For example, intentional actions that result in harm are seen as more harmful than unintentional actions with the same outcomes [17, 18]. Moral intuitions also affect judgments about cause: A driver who gets into an accident while speeding home to hide his cocaine is said to have ’caused’ the accident more than a driver who was speeding home to hide his parents’ anniversary gift [19]. People have also been shown to seek what is called ‘moral coherence’: they modify their factual beliefs to match their moral intuitions. For example, after reading an argument that capital punishment is morally wrong no matter the consequences, people are less likely to believe that capital punishment deters crime [20].

We hypothesize that a similar process may be at work when people imagine the harm likely to befall unsupervised children. That is, people may overestimate the danger to unsupervised children in order to justify their moral condemnation of the parents who allow the children to be alone.

The authors give subjects a series of vignettes, then experimental vary quantitatively irrelevant but morally pertinent details:

The vignettes differed only in the reason for the parent’s absence. In the ‘Unintentional’ version of each vignette (‘Unintentional’ condition), the parent was involuntarily separated from the child by an accident. In the other four versions, the parent intentionally left the child in order to work (‘Work’ condition), volunteer for charity (‘Volunteer’ condition), relax (‘Relax’ condition), or meet an illicit lover (‘Affair’ condition). After reading each vignette, participants were asked to estimate (on a scale of 1 to 10) how much danger the child was in during the parent’s absence.

Respondents inclined to blanket paranoia:

Estimates of risk were high overall. The mean estimate of risk across all situations (on a scale of 1-10) was 6.99 (SD = 2.63), and the modal estimate was 10.

Marginal effects, however, worked in the predicted directions:


This makes no sense at all.

In reality of course, children who are left alone in circumstances approved by their parents are likely to be safer than children who find themselves alone by accident, because parents can take steps to ensure their child’s well-being in their absence (e.g., making sure the baby is securely buckled into a car seat; that the car is parked in a shady spot; that an older child has a cell phone, knows when to expect the parent back, etc.) The fact that participants considered children left alone by accident safer than those left alone on purpose strongly suggests that participants’ moral condemnation of parents skewed their risk estimates.

Thomas et al. consider an array of competing hypotheses, and find them all wanting.  Most notably:

In Experiment 4, we asked participants to make explicit moral judgments about the behavior of the mothers in the vignettes. This served as a manipulation check, confirming that subjects did consider leaving a child alone on purpose to be less morally acceptable than leaving a child alone by accident. Leaving to meet one’s lover was also considered less acceptable than leaving to work or relax. A second reason for including the moral question was to allow participants to make separate evaluations of the risk to the child and the morality of the mother’s actions. We thought that by giving participants a way to express their moral disapproval separately from their estimates of risk, they might produce less biased estimates of risk. In fact, the opposite turned out to be true: Risk estimates in Experiment 4 were more affected by moral judgments than in Experiments 1-3. It seems that the explicit moral question simply primed respondents to pay more attention to morality, producing even more exaggerated estimates of risk.

The straightforward explanation is best:

People don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral. They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous. That is, people overestimate the actual danger to children who are left alone by their parents, in order to better support or justify their moral condemnation of parents who do so.

Aren’t these results obvious?  They should be, but aren’t.  They plainly aren’t obvious to all the laymen who live and breathe this innumeracy.  And most experts are too eager to reinterpret laymen’s ubiquitous irrationality as “rationality in disguise” to accept the straightforward explanation.

If the experts stopped making excuses for laymen’s innumeracy, would laymen change their minds?  I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.  Expert apologists, repent!