Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 17, Issue 5, pp 644–650 | Cite as

Subtle linguistic cues influence perceived blame and financial liability

  • Caitlin M. Fausey
  • Lera Boroditsky
Brief Reports


When bad things happen, how do we decide who is to blame and how much they should be punished? In the present studies, we examined whether subtly different linguistic descriptions of accidents influence how much people blame and punish those involved. In three studies, participants judged how much people involved in particular accidents should be blamed and how much they should have to pay for the resulting damage. The language used to describe the accidents differed subtly across conditions: Either agentive (transitive) or nonagentive (intransitive) verb forms were used. Agentive descriptions led participants to attribute more blame and request higher financial penalties than did nonagentive descriptions. Further, linguistic framing influenced judgments, even when participants reasoned about a well-known event, such as the “wardrobe malfunction” of Super Bowl 2004. Importantly, this effect of language held, even when people were able to see a video of the event. These results demonstrate that even when people have rich established knowledge and visual information about events, linguistic framing can shape event construal, with important real-world consequences. Subtle differences in linguistic descriptions can change how people construe what happened, attribute blame, and dole out punishment. Supplemental results and analyses may be downloaded from http://pbr.psychonomic-journals .org/content/supplemental.


Agentive Report Linguistic Description Guilty Verdict Agentive Account Super Bowl 
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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychological and Brain SciencesIndiana UniversityBloomington

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