Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 43, Issue 4, pp 662–680 | Cite as

Moral self-judgment is stronger for future than past actions

  • Hallgeir SjåstadEmail author
  • Roy F. Baumeister
Original Paper


When, if ever, would a person want to be held responsible for his or her choices? Across four studies (N = 915), people favored more extreme rewards and punishments for their future than their past actions. This included thinking that they should receive more blame and punishment for future misdeeds than for past ones, and more credit and reward for future good deeds than for past ones. The tendency to moralize the future more than the past was mediated by anticipating (one’s own) emotional reactions and concern about one’s reputation, which was stronger in the future as well. The findings fit the pragmatic view that people moralize the future partly to guide their choices and actions, such as by increasing their motivation to restrain selfish impulses and build long-term cooperative relationships with others. People typically believe that the future is open and changeable, while the past is not. We conclude that the psychology of moral accountability has a strong future component.


Morality Self-judgment Prospection Emotion Reputation 



This work was partly supported by the Norway-America Association (NORAM), and the Research Council of Norway through its Centres of Excellence Scheme, FAIR Project No 262675. Data and materials for all four studies are openly available online:


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.FAIR Insight TeamNorwegian School of Economics and SNF - Centre for Applied Research at NHHBergenNorway
  2. 2.University of Queensland and Florida State UniversityBrisbaneAustralia

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