Monday, March 7, 2011

The Omission Bias

The Omission Strategy

  1. Peter DeScioli1,
  2. John Christner2 and
  3. Robert Kurzban1,2

+Author Affiliations

  1. 1Chapman University
  2. 2University of Pennsylvania
  1. Peter DeScioli, Brandeis University, Departments of Psychology and Economics, 415 South St., Waltham, MA 02453 E-mail:


People are more willing to bring about morally objectionable outcomes by omission than by commission. Similarly, people condemn others less harshly when a moral offense occurs by omission rather than by commission, even when intentions are controlled. We propose that these two phenomena are related, and that the reduced moral condemnation of omissions causes people to choose omissions in their own behavior to avoid punishment. We report two experiments using an economic game in which one participant (the taker) could take money from another participant (the owner) either by omission or by commission. We manipulated whether or not a third party had the opportunity to punish the taker by reducing the taker’s payment. Our results indicated that the frequency of omission increases when punishment is possible. We conclude that people choose omissions to avoid condemnation and that the omission effect is best understood not as a bias, but as a strategy

This research confirms what we have been teaching in the Jury Bias Model™ that is more effective to reframe the defendant's conduct as an act rather than a failure to act.

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