"People may come down even harder on someone like the Dalai Lama, than they do on 'Joe Blow,'" study author Kurt Gray at the University of Maryland says in a statement. "However, in our research those who have suffered in the past received significantly less blame -- even if such suffering was both totally unrelated to the misdeed and long since past."
Gray and Daniel M. Wegner, professor of psychology at Harvard University, say their findings suggest morality is not like some kind of cosmic bank, where you can deposit good deeds and use them to offset future misdeeds. Instead, people ignore heroic pasts -- or even count them against you -- when assigning blame.
In the experiments involved in the study, those who highlighted past suffering were held less responsible for transgressions and given less punishment. In fact, it appears people had trouble even remembering the misdeeds of victims.
However, "whether you are trying to defend yourself against a spouse's wrath for a missed birthday or save yourself from execution for a grisly murder, your task is to become the ultimate victim ... with stories of childhood abuse, broken hearts and broken arms," Gray and Wegner say.
The findings are scheduled to be published in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.