something we do produces a positive result, we actually perceive it differently
than we would if that same action yielded a negative result. In particular,
people feel a greater connection between voluntary actions and their outcomes
if those outcomes are good than if they are bad. The discovery, reported in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, yields important
insight into notions about personal responsibility.
result suggests that people may really experience less responsibility for
negative than for positive outcomes," says Patrick Haggard of the
Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. "This is
not merely a retrospective justification about how well we have done: the
actual experience that we have changes, even in basic aspects like its timing."
researchers used a standard approach to explore a phenomenon known as
"sense of agency", which refers to the feeling that one's voluntary
actions produce some external sensory event. For instance, Haggard explains, if
you flip a light switch and a light comes on, you often experience those events
as nearly simultaneous, even if there is a bit of a lag.
team wondered whether our perception of time might depend on the emotional
outcome of an action. To find out, they tested people by asking them to press a
key. Those key presses were followed with negative sounds of fear or disgust,
positive sounds of achievement or amusement, or neutral sounds. Participants
were then asked to estimate when they had made the action or when they had
heard the sound.
Blame harder to accept
studies reveal that individuals sense a longer time lag between their own
actions and the response when those responses are negative than when they are
positive. In other words, people actually experience a lower sense of agency
for actions associated with a negative outcome.
findings may help to explain why people are generally ready to take credit for
good outcomes but not to accept responsibility for bad ones, the researchers
say. It might also reveal why blame can be so much harder to accept than
actually experience different levels of responsibility in the two situations.
But that's not to say that they shouldn't be held responsible for their
way we experience agency is not the same as the fact of agency," Haggard
says. "We have to take responsibility for what we actually do, not just
for how we experience things."